Claire Hogg spent six months in France as an English Language Assistant. She shares her experiences and tips for learning about French culture in a small town.
The first time I lived away from home I went from a UK city to rural France.
I spent six months as an English Language Assistant in a commune of 8,000 people called Privas in south-eastern France, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.
I come from Edinburgh, a city of nearly 500,000 people. I was nervous about going to a smaller place. But once I was in Privas, I found the quieter environment and lifestyle refreshing.
I took an interest in what mattered to residents of Privas
Privas is surrounded by nature.
Kayaking and hiking are popular, and so is homemade and homegrown produce.
People from Privas say that it’s the chestnut capital of the world. The surrounding region, Ardèche, produces almost 5,000 tonnes of chestnuts every year. There is even a museum dedicated to marron glacés; candied chestnuts packaged in a distinctive Privas-branded box.
At weekends, I often met people in their twenties who lived in nearby cities like Lyon and Grenoble, and came back to Privas to unwind. I found that people from Privas have a strong sense of belonging.
I adopted the local ways of speaking
The school where I taught was a great place to learn about French language and culture. I learnt a lot from the students, especially informal ways of saying things.
Some of my favourite phrases were:
Avoir la pêche
It means to feel great or to be happy. Literally, it means ‘to have the peach’.
Il fait un froid de canard
This means ‘it’s freezing cold’. It literally means 'to have a duck's cold'.
Il pleut des cordes
This means ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’. A direct translation is literally ‘it’s raining ropes’.
This means ‘that’s great!’ as an alternative to the standard ‘c’est génial!’
I learned to kiss like a local
The greeting ‘la bise’ is a kiss on the cheek. The number of kisses (‘bisous’) given depends on where in France you are.
At first, this custom led to a few awkward moments for me.
On my first night in Privas I stayed with a host family. They told me that in the north of France, they give four kisses. To the west they give two. In Privas the custom is to give three kisses.
To me, three kisses seemed quite an intimate greeting! Where I come from, a hug is more common. But people in Privas considered a hug more intimate. I sometimes hesitated over which cheek to kiss first.
I knew that I was meant to brush the cheek and make a kissing sound. But a few times I planted an actual kiss, which was a bit embarrassing!
I have long hair and once a teacher was greeting me with the customary kisses. Awkwardly, some of my hair ended up in their mouth. But they found it funny and were pleased that I was embracing the local culture.
I mastered the custom after a while.
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I formed simple routines to learn more about the local culture
I later shared accommodation with two other language assistants from Italy and Ecuador.
We built a kind of family unit together. I was the youngest by eight years and they parented me.
We enjoyed little rituals like going for coffee at a local café or watching French films. It was a great way to improve our language skills.
My flatmates and I went to the twice-weekly markets in Privas. The markets sell fresh French produce and are a hub for the community.
Most shops are closed on Sundays but the market is open. It seems to bring everyone out of their homes with their dogs. I felt like part of the community, being there and chatting to the stall owners.
These everyday interactions were some of my favourite moments of my time in France.
It was an unforgettable experience and I can’t wait to return some day.
Claire took part in the English Language Assistants programme. Every year, around 2,500 language assistants from the UK support the teaching of English in 15 destinations around the world.
Applications for the 2021-22 programme are open until 3 February 2021.