My name is Ellie, and I come from the North East of England, where one might say we speak a language of our own.
I studied French at sixth form and aspired to continue my studies of languages at university. However, I soon realised that my grades would not allow me to do so. The study of languages is not a popular choice in my area; in my class at school there were only three of us studying French, and so I was very aware of how valuable such a skill is to have. I did not want to give up on my aspirations, and so I postponed my UCAS entry- which I am completing this year- and searched for opportunities abroad to fill a gap year, develop my language skill and seem more attractive to prospective universities. I began by looking at the website ‘Workaway’ however my mum worried that there was no support system for me while I am abroad. And then, my French teacher (who comes from the South of France) told me about the European Voluntary Service (EVS.) I soon started searching the many projects in France and found ‘Educating children in Attigny’. I became very excited by the project as I like working with young people, and engaging them in new activities. This would be a new experience for me also as I have only ever worked with teenagers, whereas this project is mostly with children aged 2-5.
Being my first application, I was not expecting any positive result (especially as I had to email asking what a sending organisation is) but a few months later I received an email asking for a skype interview. The skype interview, to my relief was in English, but I must’ve been nervous as the interviewer -who was French- asked me to slow down while speaking (although it may have just been the Geordie accent). At the end of the interview I was asked if I’d applied to any other EVS projects, in which I replied no this is my only one. Either it was beginners luck, or I seemed very enthusiastic for this project- either way I was offered a placement!
After the initial excitement subsided it dawned on me… I’ve never worked with infants before! I decided to look for work experience in a local nursery, as it would be best getting some ideas while still in a familiar language rather than being thrown in the deep end in a foreign country.
I began three weeks of work experience the week after my exams had finished. Whilst my friends where out celebrating, I was playing with 3 year olds. It was very tiring work, and I required an afternoon nap each day after school, but I loved it! However I couldn’t help but think, I’m struggling to understand these toddlers, and they speak English… How am I ever going to cope in France?
After finishing my work experience I went on a four week residential working for an organisation called the National Citizen Service, which works with teenagers aged 15-17. I couldn’t decide who was more tiring: the toddlers or the teenagers.
I concluded my summer holiday with a week in Spain with my family, and the week after I left for France. The weeks leading up to this moment had consisted of many emotional phone calls with my best friend; many times when I wanted to scream with excitement; and many shopping trips to buy yet another suitcase. Saying goodbye however was not too difficult. Many of my friends were moving away to university anyway, and I had recently booked a two month trip to Thailand with my best friend for the following summer. The hardest goodbye was to my dog… after all I can skype everybody else!
After three months of not speaking any French, and an 18 hour journey driving from Newcastle to Dover, getting the ferry to Calais, and then driving to the North of France to the Ardennes, saying I struggled on arrival would be an understatement. My vocabulary included only “oui” and “d’accord” for the first couple of days until I recovered from my ‘on-land jet lag’. I arrived on Saturday the 2nd September, had the weekend with my mum to move my many bags into my house, which I share with a German EVS volunteer (Edith), and explored the very small village.
On the Monday my mum returned home and I began work on the Tuesday. However, the hard work didn’t last long, as I soon found out that the school is closed every Wednesday. I would say that this God send has so far saved me from extreme fatigue!
Within the second week I had to deliver two presentations about myself and where I am from to different members of the community, followed by cake and champagne. So far I have indulged myself with local delicacies: me and Edith have made mousse au chocolat, waffles, drunk French wine, and eaten a lot of baguette and brie! Equally, I have introduced her to English Breakfast Tea – and I have already ordered a delivery from home for some more ringtons tea (somehow liptons just doesn’t satisfy the palette).
A regular day at the nursery consists of leading an activity set by the teachers with a small group of children, which allows me to have small discussions and to inform them about my background. The infants understand that I am not French, which leads to some humorous questions such as “What planet do you come from?”, “Are you a robot?” and “Do you speak Chinese?” I have lunch in the primary school where I am bombarded with children wanting to show off their English skills, albeit this is a chance for me to make conversation in French. It amazes them that I can speak more than just French, as for the majority of the children I am the first English person they have met, and I am the first English volunteer to be hosted by this receiving organisation. The day then ends by helping with le sieste (where the youngest children sleep for 2 hours). This time has become a daily language lesson, as the other assistant helps me with my French and equally I teach her some English. It has been suggested to me that I lead an English language workshop in the village on a Wednesday, and also that I help in some English lessons in the primary school- which I am eager to get involved with.
This is my second week, and I am thoroughly enjoying my work, my company in the house, and my little quaint village. The area is beautiful- although colder than England! Last weekend, we went to a nearby village: Charleville for a puppet festival, and this weekend we hope to explore Rethel. We have access to a car, although for me it is bizarre adjusting to driving on the other side of the road (and I have ventured to the left side more than a few times), and a different measurement of speed; it’s like learning to drive all over again! Other than that, Attigny already feels like home.