J’ai bien profité: My reflections on my TAPIF experience

Today marks two weeks until my 24th birthday (hurray! another year of managing through this thing called life achieved!). It also marks two weeks until the one year anniversary of when I got accepted to TAPIF (it really was one of the best birthday presents ever, knowing that I was moving back to France!).

It is absolute insanity to me that it has already been almost a year since I was planning this complete change in my life. It’s difficult to believe that it’s already almost over. When did that happen? How has the 6 month mark come and gone and that I’m well on my way to the 7 month mark with home being shortly afterwards?

I remember my first full day in France: jet lagged, confused, overwhelmed, and excited. It all seemed as though I had the longest journey ahead of me.

The high school at which I work has a two week class schedule. This means that I see half my classes only once every two weeks. As I only have three weeks left of teaching, that means that the next time I see some of them will be my last time seeing them. When telling my students, some of the responses I received were ”déjà?” (already?) and “Mais non, c’est pas possible!” (But no, it’s not possible!’). Though there were a few students who, it seemed, couldn’t care less, it made me stop and reflect. My students really are going to miss me. It seems I have actually made an impact on them. It makes me not want to leave.

Their reactions and the reality of how little time I actually do have left has made me quite nostalgic these past couple of days.

I complain about the stress of living by myself in the country where sometimes the struggle to communicate can be very real, where my students drive me crazy sometimes and make me question my career choice, where even though I’ve been living here for half a year there are still days where I just don’t understand French bureaucracy, where I just want to hide away in my room because sometimes the feeling of missing home and my loved ones is just too strong, and where sometimes not fitting in because of some of my American culture tendencies is still very apparent. However, I also realize that I love this country, and I really do love being an expatriate, most of the time.

The amount of things that I’ve learned about myself, that have changed within me, that have changed me for the better, that I’ve seen, and that I’ve experienced, are countless. So many come across my mind while I’m writing this, and I wouldn’t change a thing. There were, and still are, many many struggles. However, I’m much stronger, much wiser, and much more confident than I was 6 months ago.

Before coming, I had set aside a handful of goals for myself.

1. Improve my French 

Though there are many days in which I feel that I haven’t progressed in any way, shape, or form because for my job I have to speak and to teach English, I have had people tell me, fellow co-workers and friends specifically, that my French has greatly improved from when I first came. Though sometimes I think they are being a little too kind, I remember that when it comes to their own language, the French aren’t likely to flatter. They are very proud of it, and they will tell you when you are not pronouncing words correctly or when you’ve used a verb incorrectly. Though this can be intimidating to some, for me, it’s a fantastic way to improve!

Another way in which I’ve noticed that I’ve improved is just the knowledge of some vocabulary. My level of conversational vocabulary has gone up significantly from before. There are a handful of phrases that I know and understand now that I never learned in school: J’en ai marre (I’ve had enough), tant pis (oh well), Ce n’est pas la peine (It’s not worth it), oh la vâche ! (oh my!), tu parles comme une vâche espagnole (direct translation: You talk like a Spanish cow. what it means: You don’t speak French very well), a handful of others that I can’t think of off the top of my head, and a few curse words that I’m going to leave out for the sake of censor.

In addition to vocabulary, I’ve become more comfortable (though still not as comfortable as I’d like to be) in using different verb tenses as well as stopping and correcting myself when I know that I’ve made a mistake (The French greatly appreciate that).

So, yes, I can proudly say that though it’s still not quite where I’d like to be or knowing that I’ll always be working on it, I have indeed improved my French.

2. Become more comfortable teaching and being in the classroom

I remember my first day of lessons. I was extremely nervous. I was so unsure of myself, that I literally went home and felt like packing up all my things to go back to the United States, especially because it was very apparent that my lesson plan was way too difficult for my students to understand. That was a tough day. In fact, the whole first week was tough, as were the few weeks that followed, and I still even have bad days even now despite being almost done with my contract. However, the difference now is that

  • I’m better at (at least attempting) to recover the lesson if it starts to go downhill.
  • I’m more comfortable with my teacher voice. I’m not afraid to call out a student when they are being rude or to raise my voice ever so slightly to tell the whole class to shut up (I, of course, use nicer words than that.)
  • I’m also not afraid of my students laughing at me because they think I’m ridiculous or look like an idiot. I have pronounced my students’ names wrong, called them the wrong name, and pronounced French words incorrectly. Instead of being embarrassed (because let’s be honest, it usually takes a lot to embarrass me), I stop and say to my students ”hey look, I’m a student, too! It’s okay to mess up. That’s how we learn. So, tell me how do I say it correctly?” This also helps to destroy that barrier between my students and myself. It makes them less afraid to mess up their English, knowing that I mess up my French.
  • I’m not afraid to be myself. At the beginning, I was afraid of showing any of my personality in case it seemed unprofessional or would make me too vulnerable. I make jokes sometimes to lighten the mood, and sometimes, I show my colors, because again, it helps to destroy that barrier between my students and myself.

3. Be more creative in lesson planning

Before completing this program, I had basically no experience at all in lesson planning. So, I felt a dud at the beginning trying to come up with creative ideas for lesson plans that would be both engaging and easy for the students to understand. Though I still struggle from time to time, I find myself now taking notes down in my notebook of lesson plan ideas that I think of while I’m either in class, walking to work, and just hanging out in the teachers’ lounge. It’s fantastic! I actually feel like a teacher now, and feeling more creative with my lesson plans adds more confidence to me while I’m in the classroom.

4. Make friends with both other expatriates and the locals

While making friends with other expatriates was the easy part, making friends with the locals was quite difficult, especially at the beginning. The residence in which I live is a foyer for young workers and students, most of whom are other expatriates such as myself completing internships for university, studies, or just working to get experience in another country just like me. I met other expatriates my first weekend living here, and though that made adjusting a little more easy at the beginning than originally anticipated, I still felt as though I should keep pushing myself to make friends both within and outside of the expatriate community, aka with locals. Though I enjoy every single one of the friendships that I’ve made with all of the other expatriates, I wanted to create friendships with some locals as well, because I felt I owed it to the experience, to myself, and frankly, to my French speaking abilities. Alas, after a couple of months, I did meet some locals, both through church and through my residence.

Since Laval is on the smaller side and consists of mostly students under the age of 20 and adults, with most young people living in the foyers, it was hard to meet locals my age, unless it was by chance through my foyer.

This combination of friends really enriched my experience though. Not only was I able to improve my French by speaking with locals, but I was able to improve it speaking to other expats, seeming how French was our only common language. I also have a diverse group of friends from all different backgrounds. So, I’ve been able to learn more about other cultures and countries than just France, and I really wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

5. Find and attend a church

This was, admittedly, extremely difficult at the beginning, to the point where I was beginning to become depressed about it near November. Being as Laval is in a region of France where Catholicism still makes up the most practiced religion, it was difficult to find a Protestant church in Laval. I had found one online, but the website said that it had been moved due to a change in buildings. The building in which the church was holding services was about an hour and a half walk one way from my apartment and the buses don’t run that far out on Sundays. So, I felt at a loss.

However, I had later found out, while at a party with some of the other expats, that a couple of the other teaching assistants were going to that church and had found people to carpool with every Sunday. I felt that God had answered my prayers.

So, alas, I have found a church and have been attending since the beginning of December. I love it because even though there are only a few young people including myself, most of the people there are extremely welcoming, lovely to talk to, and actually are involved in our lives. Most of them know that we are all expatriates and, therefore, can’t always return home for holidays. So, they invite us over for lunch or dinner on the occasion. (For example, I’m having Easter dinner at the home of one of the couples today).

It’s also wonderful because I participate in a Bible study almost every Friday, which really helps me to feel a sense of community with the other young people that attend the church.

6. Traveling as much and as often as possible.

I knew before coming that I was basically coming to live on vacation, as I only work 12 hours a week and by the end of my contract will have had 8 weeks of vacation with a couple of other random days off because of French government recognized days (such as the Monday after Easter, no work). So, I knew that I wanted to take advantage and travel as much as possible if I could afford it. Though there have been moments where I was completely stressed by the money, I found ways to make it work. I had to make some sacrifices, but I can go back home to the United States knowing that j’ai bien profité as the French would say.

Though there are still loads of other places I would love to see in this world, I already feel like I’ve seen and have experienced more than many of my friends and family back home combined.

By the end of my time here in France, I will have traveled to the following cities either for the first time or a second time:

France:

  • Paris
  • Nantes
  • Le Mans
  • Rennes
  • Bordeaux
  • Grenoble
  • Angers
  • Strasbourg

Spain:

  • Barcelona
  • Valencia
  • Granada
  • Sevilla
  • Madrid

Portugal:

  • Lisbon
  • Sintra

Germany:

  • Cologne
  • Berlin

The Netherlands:

  • Amsterdam

Czech Republic:

  • Prague

Poland:

  • Krakow
  • Auschwitz (just to see the concentration camp)

England:

  • Bristol
  • Bath
  • Oxford
  • London

Scotland:

  • Edinburgh

Ireland:

  • Cork
  • Dublin

Iceland:

  • Reykjavik

That makes 11 countries (including France) and 29 cities/towns. I think I can safely say that I went well beyond my goal. Though I will always say that I have not traveled far or wide enough, I think by the time I fly home to the States, it will have been more than enough for a 7 month period.

I have seen and experienced so many things, and each travel experience changed me in some way, even if it was just small. Through traveling, I’ve learned how to be more patient, how to better problem solve and think critically, how to get along with people that I’ve been with for more than a week, how to control my emotions when I’m feeling overwhelmed, and how to deal with discomfort. I think those are all pretty big accomplishments that I’m proud to have made.

7. Writing more often and better

I started writing my blog as a way to keep my family and my friends informed of my travels and of my experiences living and teaching in France. However, as I’ve kept this blog throughout this last year, I realized that I want to take it more seriously. I want to take my writing more seriously. I have the intention of eventually make my blog into a more, well-defined, travel blog of sorts that will operate as my side business someday. Key word, though, someday. Right now, I really enjoy it when people read my writing. It gives me great joy to know that people are actually interested in what I have to say about expatriation, travel, teaching, and just learning how to become a better global citizen every day. However, if I am honest with myself, my writing is still not where I feel it is where it needs to be. So, I promised myself that this time abroad would be best used just focusing on writing more and on finding my voice within my writing. I want to learn what makes me tick. I want to learn what my writing style is. I want to learn if I am capable of writing about different topics. I want to continue writing to improve myself before I want to make some money on the side while sharing my story, because even though I would love to turn this blog into a business, it’s first and foremost about me, my passion for the written word, and sharing my story. So, right now, it’s just about writing more and writing better.

I have achieved this goal. I aim to write at least twice a week, which is completely different than when I first started, and with every post I write,  I read it many times afterwards, seeing where I can improve. I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my writing and to find my voice in this world.

I have achieved this goal. I find myself enjoying everything single word that I type into my computer.

8. Lastly, becoming more independent and enjoying life for what it is.

It is no question that before I came I was a tad bit lost in this world, still trying to learn about myself and what I wanted. Though TAPIF gave me an amazing opportunity to follow my passions of teaching, traveling, and living in another culture, at the beginning, I was still a tad bit unsure of myself, add struggling to live on my own with my own money and my own bills to that, and well, let’s just say I was struggling.

However, despite those struggles, I aimed to overcome them. I aimed to learn more about myself and overcome my struggles of not knowing how to properly manage my own home, pay my own bills, and do pretty much the adult thing. Even though I still struggle from time to time making mistakes every now and then, I have improved immensely compared to 6 months ago.

I can admit that I’ve made many a blunder this past month with my budgeting. However, I was able to look at it, realize that it was my problem, and decided that I had to get myself out of it. Alas, I did. I figured out a way to get out of it and only asked for help and guidance when I knew that I needed it. I took responsibility for my own actions. I am immensely proud of myself for doing that. I’m starting to slowly learn that being independent isn’t about making mistakes. It’s about trying your best not to but then learning from the ones that you will inevitably make. Because of the mistakes that I made in my budget this past month, I had to skip out on single day travels with my friends, which really sucked because I wanted to profite bien. However, I had to make a sacrifice, and making such sacrifices made me realize that life here in Laval isn’t too bad. It’s actually quite nice. I’ve come, over the course of my time here, to accept my normal life here, and really not just to accept but to enjoy it. I love traveling. Who doesn’t? But it is not practical in any sense to do so constantly, at least not for me.

In addition to my finances, getting through legal paperwork in a foreign country while speaking a foreign language is no easy task, but alas, I’ve managed. It has made me more opt to problem solving, and it has made me more confident in being able to handle myself, because if I can do it in a foreign country, I can definitely do it at home.

Even traveling has made me more independent, for the reasons that I stated above at number 6, and I couldn’t be more satisfied with all of that.

 

Overall, these last 6 months have been terribly difficult and amazingly fantastic. The thing that was the most important about these goals for me though was not necessarily achieving them but creating them. I was proactive during my time here, making sure that I was learning, growing, and having life experiences. Though achieving these goals was very important to me, opening myself up to what the world had to offer was more so. Expectations are good in that they push you towards your goals, however, too many and too high of expectations can really make you crash.

So, if you are a fellow TAPIFer, future TAPIFer, expatriate, or just someone interested in reading about my story, I advise you to do the same. Make your goals. Work really hard towards them, however, don’t be all about them. Use this year to allow yourself to discover yourself and your place in this world, regardless of what you are doing in your life or where you live. Allow the world to show you what it’s all about without you focusing on what you think it’s all about. Be open to the changes to come, even the tough ones that we all know full and well are coming.

I hope that my words inspired you or gave you some comfort in some ways. Just remember, just get out there and live your life. Don’t let life live you.

A plus mes amis…

 

 

 

 

 

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