Signs you’ve spent long enough in France

Honey, I’m home. This chronologically unreliable post has been written over the course of a week and approximately 2000km, as I’ve been steadily making my way back to the shire with Mum (via Amsterdam, to visit my aunt and uncle) in the car. To commemorate the end of my year abroad, here’s a helpful list of indicators that you’ve spent quite long enough in France. 

1. You’ve completely forgotten the PIN number of your UK card

This got me into several humiliating situations, especially as I only realised I’d forgotten it when I was trying to pick up train tickets (bought online using the numbers they helpfully write on the card) and had a complete mental blank. Fortunately, a maverick SNCF employee kindly (if illegally) let me have the tickets anyway when my passport, wallet full of cards saying “Rowan Lyster” and confirmation email made it apparent that I probably was who I said I was. In order to get a reminder, I then had to sheepishly admit to the HSBC people that I’d forgotten my own PIN number.

2. Ennui becomes one of your main emotions

…and strikes, unexpectedly, at the most innoportune moments. I’ve not helped myself by persistently drinking small but productivity-hampering amounts of wine at lunchtime, and watching days’ worth of screen gems such as The Great Gatsby and Black Mirror.
The Ennui strikes most often in three key situations: before washing up, during packing, and after trying fruitlessly to complete administrative tasks.

3. You are OUTRAGED when cava costs more than €1.20

Yep, our corner shop does a good(ish) bubbly for cheaper than half a dozen eggs. See above point about day drinking.

4. You have got completely used to driving on the right (WRONG, SO WRONG)-hand side of the road

While I’m extremely rusty and finding driving in general deeply, deeply stressful, I haven’t gone the wrong way around any roundabouts. We shall see what happens when we cross the channel.

5. You have finished your dealings with CAF (housing benefit people) and are in the black

I never thought this day would come, but it did, about a month ago. My hard-gotten gains were around 400€, which is not to be sniffed at. However, to give you an idea of the obstacles they put in your way of getting it,  here are some of my SUPER-EXCITING CAF HIGHLIGHTS:
  • Applied in September 2013; received first installment of money in early March 2014
  • Receieved at least 4 totally contradictory lists of required documents
  • Had to provide most of them multiple times, the key example being confirmation of my student status which was requested five or six times
  • Fell victim to at least 3 administrative errors leading to more forms to fill in
  • Was asked (twice) to give them 92€ before actually receiving any money due to having been “overpaid”
  • Had to ingratiate myself with the neighbouring school to which they persistently delivered my letters
  • Went into office to ask questions after getting no response to phonecalls, emails and letters; had various documents taken from me and was sent away, baffled, with a receipt and no recollection of the preceding conversation.
Believe it or not, my experience with the mind-bogglingly inefficient CAF has run comparatively smoothly. I know people who’ve had to pay to get their birth certificate (mis-)translated despite it apparently not actually being required, people who’ve been told their birth certificate wasn’t valid unles it had a stamp, and people who’ve had to go into the office more or less once a week and still haven’t received anything.
Photo interlude! One of the beautiful landscapes we drove through – this is a place called Viviers

6. You genuinely could not care less about UHT vs fresh milk

I was never a big milk-drinker, but this one really used to bug me; Bonnie apparently still slightly cares, having recently described UHT as “the milk of the Devil”. I, on the other hand, will now pour pretty much anything short of water on my cereal, and can barely tell the difference. This makes a refreshing change from the days of arduous searches for “normal” milk. What’s more, I don’t miss regularly being assailed by disturbed looks that clearly imply “Why don’t you just drink it straight from the cow, pervert?”

7. You’ve stopped being excited about crêpes

I had a couple in the last few days in Franceland, but I’ve basically stopped buying the things – they’re just not special any more. Mind you, the quiet death of my romance with extra-flat pancakes didn’t stop me from (unsuccessfully) trying to buy a crêpière on the way out of France.

8. You don’t even go to boulangeries any more

Because the fancypants bread is no longer manna from heaven, but just… bread. This is also rather sad.

9. Giving every single person you meet several ridiculous air-kisses seems totally normal…

Despite my previous rant on the subject, I have pretty much got used to this and haven’t had any near-disasters in some time. Although rest assured, I do still maintain that hugs and handshakes are the wonderfully gender-neutral future of greetings.

10. …but text kisses seem a bit weird.

The French don’t do these, and neither do the Germans (although occasionally you’ll get a :-* or a bisous), so even my British friends have sort of lost the habit of sending kisses at the end of texts. This now means that it feels as weird as… well, as it is to send an x at the end of every single exchange  by SMS. I have to force myself to remember that every x-less text used to break a little piece of my soul (ISABEL I AM LOOKING AT YOU HERE).

11. You feel cheated when you look up the forecast for your home country, and find it hard to believe that there could even be such a thing as a whole week of rain.

I didn’t realise how much I’d started taking the South-of-France climate for granted until I became genuinely incredulous when people mentioned “a couple of weeks of rain”. I can only be thankful that I missed a winter so bad that even the French were talking about it over their morning coffee in the sun.
Photo interlude #2 – a brief stop in sunny Dijon, which I haven’t been to before and looked oddly Germanic.

12. You’ve done nearly all the things on your tourist list

…and anything you haven’t done is probably because you didn’t really want to. I’ve done as much exploring as is humanly possible using public transport and a bike, although this is limited by the fact that (as a wise woman once said) “It’s impossible to navigate Montpellier in a car, and impossible to leave it without one.”

13. You routinely cycle on the pavement

Because if you can’t beat ’em and there are a million pedestrians on YOUR BIT OF THE ROAD, join ’em. Yes, I am now One Of Them. I noticed that I’d given up on my principles thanks to the several death-glares I received while cycling around Amsterdam in a cavalier French manner. At least I maintained my place on the teeny-tiny moral high ground of people who actually use bike lights and a helmet in France.

14. You’re deeply surprised when anything happens on time

and have started assuming (quite dangerously) that nobody will really expect you to be there until quarter of an hour later than you said. I need to get out of this habit before finals.

15. You’ve mis-learnt a bunch of Grown-up words

It’s impossible to deny that I’ve learnt a lot this year, not just about France and French, but about adult life. The problem with this is that I haven’t incorporated the actual English words relating to getting an apartment, closing a phone account etc. into my vocabulary. I’ve therefore had to stop myself repeatedly using weird Frenchisms, such as:
Resiliate = close a phone line
Caution = deposit
Obligatory = compulsory
Councils = advice
Validate = applicable in almost any situation where an OK button has to be pressed
Manifestation = demonstration
Certificate of Scolarity = I don’t think this exists at home…
Attestation of rent = … ditto
Followed letter = recorded delivery
Blue card = Bank card
Photo interlude #3 – From my uncle Andy’s boat, on our way back from a concert down the Amstel

16. You’ve learnt not to trust people who seem to be being helpful in the capacity in which they are paid to be helpful

Random people on the street have been very forthcoming with directions and information, but if I’ve learnt one thing this year it’s that French people working in office/call-centre/transport jobs Do Not Care, and will therefore repeatedly lie to you to get you off their back. It’s a good thing that I didn’t fully believe the two separate LCL (my bank) call-centre people who told me multiple times, quite unequivocally, that I could close my bank account by post. When I went into the branch to check, I was informed that I was an idiot who should have come in weeks ago, and that I quite obviously had to be there in person.

17. You already miss your life there

I will miss a great many things about Montpellier. The saddest part of leaving, of course, is saying goodbye to the fantastic people with whom I’ve been lucky enough to make friends, and to whom I’m incredibly grateful for a year of fun, companionship and support. It’s horribly sad to acknowledge that I’ll probably never see the vast majority of the people I’ve met again, such as my choir and the people I volunteer to visit. Even those who I keep well in touch with will no longer be a part of my daily life and community, and I’ll miss being part of a continuous international exchange – because while it may be hard to integrate into French society, it’s been incredibly rewarding meeting so many people from all over the world, most of whom are unwaveringly friendly and interesting.

It’s also going to be hard stepping out of a routine I’ve build up over 8 months, altough thankfully I have the summer to ease myself from the sluggish pace of my Mediterranean life back into the frenetic madness of Oxford. The places I pass through every day, the road signs, and the annoying spit-and-twigs structures in our flat have all become familiar sights that I’ll miss, and even the elements of my year abroad that I’ve found challenging have been rose-tinted in the glasses of premature nostalgia.

I seem to leave a piece of myself wherever I go…
That’s all for now. But wait – I can see you suspended on the edge of your seats by tenterhooks, asking, with keenly bated breath, whether this can really be the end!? 
Well, it’s not, so you can relax (or recoil backwards, horrified at the thought of reading more of my self-centred ramblings. In which case I ask myself why you’re reading them in the first place. Go away and get a DVD or something.) I’m planning to do a few more posts reflecting on my time in Montpellier, and then of course I’ll have to tell you ALL about my upcoming return to Berlin. I’m also contemplating carrying on my blog indefinitely, with more general musings and cartoons about language and life. Basically, don’t worry; you won’t get rid of me that easily!

Zoe (my Dutch/English cousin) wears a Lyster-Molenaar-King creation in cutting-edge Fabric Pen technology. (We did t-shirt decorating)

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