Languages

August in pictures

It’s been a while since I last posted on here but I’ve been a bit caught up in the routine of working and writing my university essays. Whilst on my year abroad I was given two projects which I’ve had the past 14 months to write, however I have typically left them to the last minute and most of my free time in August was spent at my laptop hastily hashing together coherent sentences whilst regretting not working on them sooner. Anyway both are finished now which means guilt-free free time!

To update you all, just two weeks remain of my work placement and I’m beyond happy about this. I feel like I have now mastered the fine art of selling expensive cotton shirts and I rarely make mistakes at the cash desk, so things are definitely less tense, some days I even enjoy myself. Having said this, I’m more than ready to stop folding cashmere v-necks and measuring body parts. Also, it’s been eerily quiet in the store recently as most of the French population are off on their summer holidays. This usually means I am left alone to supervise la boutique whilst my boss gets some work done in the office. If there are no deliveries to deal with or customers to (attempt to) help then I mostly just polish the displays obsessively and rearrange the ties in colour order. I find myself messing things up just to give myself something to tidy and I don’t know if these habits are healthy if repeated for 35 hours a week.

Luckily I have enjoyed some time in central Paris over the past month or so and the weather has generally been perfect (I’m tempted to say ‘insufferably hot’ but I’m about to experience a winter in Durham so I will not complain about warmth). Below are some of the sites of Paris that I have enjoyed recently…

The beautiful funfair at Les Tuileries and views from the terrace of Galleries Lafayette

Jardin de Luxembourg

Montmatre, including Le mur des je t’aime – a wall of ‘I love you’ in multiple languages ❤

Exploring the Île de St Louis, one of my favourite parts of Paris

I haven’t been able to watch the Great British Bakeoff but a visit to Ladurée is sort of the same thing…

And finally, the Eiffel Tower. Just dreamy.

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Happy September!

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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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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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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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A French fiasco in the mountains

I am currently organising part three of my year abroad. I need to spend at least a couple of months in France improving my language skills because I definitely need to broaden my capacities beyond the waitressing-specific vocabulary I mastered last summer.

I’ve been applying for jobs and I’ve even had a few Skype interviews. What I’ve learnt from this is that Skype interviews are the WORST. There’s almost always an awkward sound delay and the screen will inevitably freeze, capturing the most unattractive expression and allowing potential employers a three-minute screen shot of your ugliest angle.

For one particular job, the employer and I scheduled an interview time of 10am on a Monday morning. I spent the whole weekend preparing; I listened to French podcasts to get in the zone, I complied a list of questions to ask and, most importantly, I set up my laptop to ensure the best internet connection, the most flattering lighting and the perfect screen angle. I’d done my hair, perfected my makeup and I was ready to go. I then sat for about thirty minutes with my practiced professional yet approachable smile, in an optimal seating position, sitting not too close but not too far from the screen (to convey keenness without looking creepy), waiting for the call. Sadly, after all my excessive preparation, the call never came.

I’d been stood up by a French employer. A new type of rejection – international AND virtual, blimey.

A few days later I received an apologetic email and the promise of a call later in the week, no day or time specified. I went about daily life and, after about eight days, assumed I was never going to hear anything and decided to recommence the arduous task of ambushing French companies with my CV.

Then, one Thursday evening I decided to go for a run in the countryside. It was a sunny day and I chose to run up a rocky mountain path for some pretty views. Taylor Swift was blasting in my headphones, blood was pumping, I was sweaty and exhausted – a great workout. Then, just as I was reaching the top of the steeply inclined dirt track, my phone rang. The number was unrecognised so, with no idea whether to answer in English, Spanish or French, I settled for an out of breath ‘Hello?’. Who was it? Monsieur Olszak. He was calling to discuss the French job.

Picture the scene. I am up an ACTUAL mountain, wind howling, dogs barking and chickens cooing in the background (due to the farm ten metres to my right). I was breathless, literally panting, and my mind was a useless jumble of Spanish adjectives and Taylor Swift lyrics. To put it mildly the timing was awful.

I had no choice but to think on my trainer-clad feet and get on with the interview. The signal cut out twice due to the rural setting, however, by the end of the interview I was just about forming coherent sentences. I managed to answer most of his questions and ask a few of my own, but all in the entire scenario couldn’t have been much worse.

Bizarrely (miracles do happen) I got offered the job. It’s with a menswear company in Paris and I’m in the process of confirming things now. I think that maybe the animal noises in the background distracted from my poor French, or perhaps the company needs to fulfil an equal opportunities quota and ‘asthmatic farmer’ ticked a necessary box.

Anyway, I jogged home laughing to myself at the absurdity of what had just happened. At least the whole experience set the bar very low for all future job interviews. Now, if everything falls into place (and my envelope of documents survives the perilous Spanish postal service) I might just be spending a summer in Paris – yipee!

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Two months

befunky_artwork.jpgSeeing as I did a one month update, I thought I should write a little piece to mark the milestone of two months in Spain.

While the first month was busy, exciting and a bit overwhelming, this second month has been much, much calmer. Aside from my trip to Cordoba (which you can read about here, here and here), I’ve stayed in Zafra most weekends. Basically, us language assistants only received our first month’s salary last week, so until now we hadn’t really been in a position to splash the cash on multiple weekend excursions. Having said that, we’ve had fun exploring the countryside around here, visited some local restaurants and, due to the change in temperatures, spent many cosy evenings in the apartment.

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On Halloween we had a mexican night, because, well why not? Due to budget-airline luggage restrictions we all travelled with minimal clothes and, as a result, costume options were quite limited. Fortunately for me this apartment came with a sombrero hidden in one of the cupboards, so I threw on my aztek scarf (which doubles up as a blanket) and voilà, a costume! We had fajitas and mojitos – it was great.

Apartment-wise, we had an technical issue last week; waking up in complete darkness without electricity of any kind. It doesn’t get light here until about 8.30 am, so we had to get ready by torchlight – goodness knows what I went to school looking like that day. After mild panic I called up the electrician and he came pretty quickly. All was sorted by the afternoon, thank goodness.

School has been going well. In one of my classes the students are putting on an English play. Due to my English speaking ability I’ve been lumbered with the job of director. It seems that the teacher has decided to play an observatory role and leave me to it. It’s quite fun though, I pretend to know what I’m doing ; I mainly correct pronunciation and shout ‘project your voice!’ every few minutes.

I’ve also picked up a lot of private lessons. I now do eight a week, which is great for the bank account. I’m also getting to visit a variety of houses in Zafra! My favourite lesson is a conversation class with the natural sciences teacher Juan. He’s about sixty and does Iron man competitions, hand-gliding and yoga in his spare time. He’s a complete hippy and I aspire to be just like him when I’m old. We have similar food tastes and this week he baked me a loaf of rye bread which was delicious. People here really are the friendliest.

The month of December sees a weekend away to Barcelona and a trip home for CHRISTMAS. I am beyond excited for both. Happy Sunday!

The photos above: 1. A visit to Córdoba 2. Charity walk for Breast Cancer 3. Autumn leaves in Zafra 4. Beautiful sunsets on an evening run 5. Halloween fun with my flatmate Emmy

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