At around half past four in the afternoon, drenched in sweat from a two hour wild goose chase around town, breath still smelling vaguely of “just one more pint” (I have the best friends), I arrived at the université JF-Champoillon in the small town of Albi in the South of France where I will be until Christmas. Getting to Albi was not difficult – plane, bus and two train journeys but relatively simple nonetheless – which came as a surprise because it has a kind of untraceable Narnia-esque quality to it which means that nobody can find it on a map of France, even Google had problems. The reason for this became apparent on the second of the two train journeys; Albi is separated from civilisation by roughly a zillion miles of field, the only content of which seems to be dead sunflowers. But we arrived trouble free; it was only when trying to locate the university that a slight hiccup ensued.
Although it pains me to introduce a negative so early on in the narrative, the reason for this teensy misstep (the aforementioned goose chase) was due to asking directions from various people at the train station, tourist office and bus stop. Asking for help from a French public sector worker provokes them to react as though they have just been asked to do an immensely difficult personal favour for a scruffy looking stranger, which made it nearly impossible to get any kind of useful direction.
In spite of this slight obstacle I arrived and managed to negotiate my way into my halls of residence, no thanks whatsoever to my supposed ability to understand French. The halls, for which I am paying one hundred Euros per month, are what I can only describe as value for money. When I first saw them I was under the impression that I was going to spend the next four months squatting in a house that has been abandoned for many years – the first things I saw were a sofa with no cushions or cover and a Finnish newspaper from around 1908 – but not being a slave to the twenty-first century mania about cleanliness and hygiene I think it will detract nothing from the overall experience. The next bombshell dropped on me was the fact that I should be prepared for the possible arrival of a roommate. I do not know who this person is, or even which part of the world they come from, but if they are going to spend four months in a room with me then I pity them as I have pitied no other – judging on the testimony of family and past flatmates, even sharing a building with me can be a trying experience, so sharing a room will probably be a kind of existential hell on earth in comparison.
Moaning over with Albi is actually a very idyllic place, to the extent that I feel it is wasted on one such as myself, who has been known to spend evenings trawling the internet for tv shows to watch illegally. It is an old fashioned sort of town built around a cathedral with lots of old cobbled streets and houses and a river running through it bordered on either side by various brown stone buildings and high walls all of which is covered by various kinds of ivy. It’s a bit like the planet Tattooine in ‘Star Wars’ (MASSIVE GEEK ALERT). It’s very nice, especially when combined with endless sunshine.
As far as normal young person stuff goes the offerings are slightly more sparse; the town centre is composed entirely of restaurants which, when you, as I am, are loath to pay more than four pounds per meal, does not provide much sustenance. This said the other Erasmus students and I have had the pleasure of an Albi night out. A bar had a Salsa night and we went along to find that the dancing was like a cross between Salsa and line dancing which after a few drinks became quite fun. An older lady even took something of a shine to me, although my chances of being written into the old dear’s will were scuppered when I accidentally tripped her up trying to pull off a particularly ambitious dance move. All in all it was not the kind of night out I am used to but ended up being a good laugh.
I have also taken my first trip to a French cinema to see ‘Salt’ (4-word review: ‘Bourne Identity’ with Angelina). It was much the same experience, although I noticed a subtle difference in tone between French and British adverts; rather than trying to emphasise quality or price, the basic theme of every advert in France, no matter what for, is ’This product will definitely get you laid’ – which seems to me to be such a wonderfully French concept.
Anyway I digress, next update in a week.