Never had my gut feeling been so wrong. I remember the night when the phrase “butterflies in my stomach” didn’t even come close to how I felt. It was 2 a.m. on a September morning in 2009. The car was packed and ready to go, and my parents and I were about to leave for a journey that would take us through the Channel Tunnel, across France, down to Toulouse. It was the fear of the unknown in what would actually become the greatest year of my life to date.
As part of my Year Abroad, I chose to work as a part-time English language assistant in a comprehensive school: Lycée Saint-Exupéry, in Blagnac just north of Toulouse – a city I had no prior knowledge of.
I spent the summer casually researching the city to see what I could expect: was it young or old? modern or old-fashioned? belle or moche? But it was a stressful time, as time was quickly running out to find somewhere to live, which involved ringing up people in France and speaking French. Terrifying. Luckily, I found a flatshare in a bright apartment that was really close to the city centre, overlooking the River Garonne, and more importantly, the city’s main stadium. And I got to live with French people! My lovely landlady, Isabelle, who introduced me to the arts scene in Toulouse, and Kévin, an 18-year-old lad in his last years of school, who I didn’t really see much of.
So, we set off on the epic drive, stopping overnight in Le Mans, arriving at a holiday home south of Toulouse where we would spend the week first, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year. We spent the week touring the south-west of France, taking in small, picturesque towns such as Albi with its striking cathedral, tranquil Pau in the mountains and chic Biarritz on the coast. We ventured into the lush, green Pyrenees which were yet to be covered in snow, where I discovered a language that even I, Language Man, had never heard of, called Occitan – somewhat between French and Spanish – which I would later find out more about and base my university project on.
The time came for my parents to abandon me and leave me to fend for myself. I spent a few
days settling in and getting to know the city by hiring a bike and exploring the narrow streets, checking out the markets, seeing the sights, and also arranging to meet up with other English-speaking assistants in the city. I quickly got to know Place St Pierre – the hub of la vie nocturne in Toulouse – and made some Anglophone friends. Now I felt a little bit more relaxed and ready to start at school…