By spring 2010, I realised that my time in France was drawing to a close, and despite everything that I had done and everywhere that I had been, I hadn’t seen as much as I wanted to. So I took action and hopped on a train to Montpellier. It wasn’t a place I knew much about, but as France’s 8th largest city, situated on the Mediterranean coast two hours SE of Toulouse, it was bound to be a nice day out.
Stepping out of Saint Roch station, I was greeted by the façades of typical 19th century French architecture, vast public promenades and squares, and wide areas of peaceful greenery. Very close to the station was a very small park, with a large peculiar boulder in a pool of water and a sprinkler on top. Perfect place to relax with a book amidst the gentle sound of the fountain. But I had no time for this – I was on one of Language Man’s ‘power trips’. This is when I visit a large town or city, seeing as much as I can within as little time as possible. The result is a camera with a very full memory card, a thinner wallet and painful feet, but the memories and cultural enrichment are worth it.
One of my favourite points in Montpellier was Porte du Peyrou, a triumphal arch smaller than Paris’s Arc de Triomphe but more majestic due to its golden colour, proudly flying the French tricolore. Later I released the inner child with a trip to Montpellier Zoo, notably for its Serre Amazonienne, a tropical greenhouse with exotic animals from anacondas to piranhas.
As I reached the end of my time in France, I didn’t want to leave the country without having ever visited Paris. So, two weeks after Montpellier, I went on another power trip to Paris. I took the one-hour flight from Toulouse to Charles de Gaulle at around 6am in the morning, returning at around 8pm the same evening. Everything that can be said about this city has already been put into poems or other literary and artistic works. Writers can try as hard as they like to convey the overwhelming sight of the buildings along the river Seine, set under a backdrop of blue sky, interrupted only by the Eiffel Tower rising high above.
So, with my unlimited metro card and my meticulously planned route in an anti-clockwise direction, I took in sights including the Louvre (the outside only), the Champs Elysées, the Palais de l’Elysée (where the President lives), the Arc de Triomphe, La Défense (Paris’s financial district with lots of modern skyscrapers), Notre Dame, the Centre Pompidou (modern art gallery) and Montmartre.
Of course, I did go to the Eiffel Tower, but after an hour wasted in a queue that wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to give it a miss and save it for when I come back to Paris to see it properly with my fiancée. As a happy compromise, I went up the equally high Tour Montparnasse for a spectacular view of this city. I fail to understand why more people don’t do this. This beats going up the Eiffel Tower for several reasons: it’s much cheaper and much quicker (barely a queue), and in particular, the view at the top includes the Eiffel Tower and isn’t spoilt by the ugly Tour Montparnasse! This day remains one of the best of my life.
Back in Toulouse, I had only a few weeks left with my students. Lesson plans were out the window and my classes for the last fortnight consisted of an hour-long quiz about the UK and putting on a DVD of Mr Bean’s Holiday. The year had definitely been a learning curve as far as preparing lessons was concerned. Prior to leaving for France, my university organised a language assistants course, but I was still thrown into the deep end when I arrived as I had no idea of the pupils’ level of English, what topics they were interested in or indeed what I should base my lessons on.
I worked with a number of English language teachers who all had their own way of teaching. Rosy preferred for me to concentrate on fluency by holding conversations with the students, whereas I would work with Letty on whatever her lessons focussed on. At one point, we had an intense debate on the morality of the death penalty in English. With other teachers, it was often whatever I could come up with, so I would spend evenings dissecting the BBC news site for the most interesting topics of the week. The year taught me how to use my initiative when the class came to an awkward silence, and how to motivate when the classroom was the last place the kids would want to be on a warm Friday afternoon. It was difficult, but the most rewarding parts of life are challenging.
The year had come to an end and my parents once again drove all the way from Cardiff to Toulouse – this time without me navigating – and we drove back overnight, leaving Toulouse at 10pm and arriving home at 3pm the following day. I had never done so much driving in my life, but the eerily quiet motorways gave me time to reflect on a diverse and vibrant year, and I wondered how it went so quickly.