It’s starting to feel more autumnal here – on clear days the sky is that crisp, bright, white-blue that reminds me of buttoned up coats and cracking thin ice puddles on grey London pavements. I’m excited by this change for two reasons: the first being that as a true English rose I have a tendency to wilt and shrivel in temperatures higher than 20 degrees; and the second being that it heralds the start of the impending ski season. On a subconscious level, I think the cold also makes it feel more like home.
Given that I have an inordinate amount of free time here, I decided to do something useful with it and earn some money. Going through a company called Baby Speaking I’ve acquired a job nannying some tiny, immaculately dressed French children three afternoons a week. The idea is for me to speak to them only in English, but as they are aged three and eighteen months, I occasionally lapse into their mother tongue. Just as you or I wouldn’t want a hangover to be soothed with, for example, Swahili, no screaming French toddler in a playground wants to be comforted about his scrapped palms in English. When I go to pick Sarah up from nursery, it feels like I’ve stepped straight into Etre et Avoir, and there’s something about foreign children that makes them even cuter than English ones. Possibly it’s the fact that you can’t fully understand their inane babbling or irritating whingeing (although as I have discovered, that whiny voice that the 3 to 7 year old demographic have perfected is universal). I should I also mention that Sarah’s younger brother is called Basile. His gurgling laugh and fat little cheeks are so entirely at odds with the image conjured up by his name – that of a refined elderly English gentleman at home in his manor – that I may have to draw a monocle on him at some point to balance the two out.
The society for welcoming international students to the university, Sciences Melting Pot (geddit?), finally got round to organising its first event last Wednesday. We’ve been here for 5 weeks now, so I suppose that’s actually quite speedy going by French standards, especially when you take into account the fact that I still don’t have a student card. The event was a “soirée de parrainages“, so each exchange student was assigned a French “parrain” or “marraine” (godfather or godmother) to meet with for a drink, before descending collectively upon a bar for the rest of the evening. My marraine was a Lyonnaise girl called Bérangère, who turned up at my apartment with a bottle of pink grapefruit wine and a friend who was flying to London that weekend to see her favourite band, Muse. Alcohol and obsessive-to-the-point-of-being-a-stalker music fans are two of my favourite things, so we hit it off easily. I was also having an evening of feeling particularly fluent in French – for a few effortless hours my brain no longer had to reach out and blindly grasp for the right word, and instead it’s as if my synapses were electrified, so easily did the correct conjugations materialise from my mouth (I am aware that it was also possibly the pink wine assisting me). Unfortunately the rest of the evening went steadily downhill from there. Melting Sciences Pot had sold out all 500 tickets for the event, but I’m pretty sure the bar only had the capacity for half that number. For some inexplicable reason, they decided the hot, cramped conditions would be improved if they allowed everyone to smoke inside, and so, in what is becoming an all too regular occurrence, I returned home smelling like an ashtray. As a non-smoker this cultural distinction is becoming evermore noticeable – here it is the norm to light up in other people’s flats or houses, and most clubs have murky, claustrophobic smoking rooms that sting your eyes the minute you enter, and feel like a hotbed of lung cancer if you stay long enough for your friend to make and smoke a rollie.
I’ve already touched on the differences between French and English classes and teaching styles, but I neglected to mention the French students. One of my history lecturers here who teaches the course “Révolution, Nation et Republique” is something of an institution, and spices up his three hour lectures with snippets of songs, such as La Marseillaise. As someone who didn’t know the words to her own national anthem until the Olympics this summer, it was somewhat surprising when a number of students in the lecture theatre jumped up, put their hands to their hearts, and started singing along with gusto. Another notable difference is the way the French (at least in this course) whoop, cheer and even boo at the mentions of prominent or controversial historical figures and their actions, as if history genuinely was being played out before their very eyes. Although it may well be unique to this class because the Revolution is close to their hearts or because the professor is particularly engaging, I have never seen history elicit similar reactions in Edinburgh, even with our most dynamic lecturers.
I live in halls of residence here, and the contrast with the British versions is significant. There are no common rooms so it’s much harder to meet and get to know people, especially if they live on a different floor. However, in the past week, it has become more sociable and on Friday night, one of the Italians who lives opposite me invited a bunch of us round to meet some friends she had to stay. At some point a bottle of rum was produced, and I ended up being the only girl keeping pace with the boys shot for shot. This led to them crowning me the “Queen of Alcohol” and, at times, genuinely prostrating themselves on the floor in front of me. This was bizarre as I am by no means an anomaly in the UK in terms of my drinking ability, and I half wished I could have demonstrated this by taking them to your average northern town in England on a Saturday night to introduce them to our hen party culture. With the same group I also somehow found myself engaged in a YouTube karaoke session last night, and corny as it sounds, it seems that no matter what country you come from, music really is the universal language. We ran the whole gamut of tenses (to continue the metaphor), from good classics (Don’t Stop Me Now, Let it Be, Livin’ on a Prayer), to bad classics (My Heart Will Go On, which I put on as a JOKE, only to watch with horror as 11 non-English speakers proceeded to yowl at me “NEAAAR FAR, WHEREZER YOO ARRREEE”), and the contemporary unmentionables (Call Me Maybe and Gangnam Style). I never anticipated that I would feel the most integrated into the Erasmus lifestyle whilst singing a k-pop internet smash hit, but I’m slowly learning it’s better to just expect the unexpected.