When I was at university in Aberdeen, I studied languages, specifically French and Scottish Gaelic. During my third year (2011-12), as was standard for language degrees, I had the amazing opportunity to take a year abroad. This wasn’t really possible for the Scottish Gaelic part of my joint degree (though I did spend 3 weeks on the Isle of Skye before my fourth year) so I was able to spend the entire year out of university and in France, improving my language skills.
There were three options for the year abroad – study at a university, work as a language assistant in a school, or work for a business like Total (a French oil & gas company). I love learning languages but I’m not always the most confident in my abilities (even now, with the degree under my belt) so I didn’t feel that I could comfortably and successfully study in a French university. On the other end of the spectrum, I had heard that quite often when working with a company, like Total or similar, you were more likely to speak English, instead of French, which seemed counterproductive to me. Since I had always wanted to be a teacher, being an English Language Assistant and helping to teach pupils English through French medium made the most sense and seemed like the best balance for me.
Once we had chosen from the above three options, we had a few choices for where we wanted to study, or work, in a French-speaking country like – France, Belgium or Switzerland. Belgium was my first pick since I have family living in Brussels so while it was still unfamiliar territory, there was a certain familiarity to it for me. Unfortunately due to a highly competitive programme with few posts available, I missed out on going there. Fortunately, my application was accepted in the French programme by the British Council and French authorities. From there, I had to choose 3 cities from 3 different regional groups and was accepted to work and live in a city called Amiens in the Picardy region in the north of France. We also had to choose whether we would prefer to teach in a primary school (école), middle school (collège) or high school (lycée). I chose primary since I was hoping to be a teacher in a primary school. However, because of this choice, I wouldn’t actually find out where I would be teaching until I arrived in France.
The whole process was nerve-wracking and long, to say the least. Our applications had to be submitted around Christmas 2010 and I didn’t find out which country and city I would be placed in until May 2011. This feels like the longest time when you’re waiting to find out how you’re going to spend your next year. Once I had found out, in amongst the excitement and nerves, I then had to figure out how I was going to get there for my contract start date of 1st October, and most importantly – where I would be staying!
I was put in touch with C.R.O.U.S, the student accommodation for the local university, where I could put in an application to stay at the student halls. This process seemed to take forever too and I didn’t get any confirmation of my placement there until the beginning of September, only 4 weeks before I was due to leave. Given that university terms can begin around October in France, this makes sense and is all very well when you are going to university within that country. However, when you are moving to another country and don’t know if you’ll have somewhere to live, it would be nice if they could hurry things along! I was pretty concerned up until this point but what a relief it was when I finally found out. Everything seemed to be fitting into place.
My other challenge was getting to Amiens but I was really lucky in that my dad offered to drive me to Amiens. Yes, you read that right. My dad offered to drive me from the Highlands of Scotland to Amiens in the north of France, with his girlfriend as second driver, to get me settled into a new place. To say I was grateful was an understatement. This meant that I could take everything that I needed to furnish my room, and any other items for living abroad for a year, in the car with me. I wouldn’t have to worry about packing my belongings into hold and hand luggage, dealing with the airport or navigating my way to the accommodation with all that stuff. Did I mention that I was lucky? Now I just had to pack everything up and save up enough money to keep myself afloat until I got paid there.
Anyway, thanks to some emails from the British Council and Amiens local education authority in September, I was able to get in touch with some other assistants who would be staying in Amiens, and more specifically, in the same accommodation as me. This meant that I would have some contacts and know some people for when I arrived which was reassuring when I was going to be so far away from home.
So, after some final frantic last-minute packing and shopping the few days prior, I was finally ready to go, close to a year after I’d applied. On the morning of 30th September 2011, my dad, his girlfriend and I set off on our 750 mile journey to France.