An A-Z of my Year Abroad

This time last year, I was in the final phases of preparation for my year abroad: I was full of anticipation, yet equally filled with anxiety by the bucketload. Now, realms of paperwork, dozens of postcards and endless memories later, I’m back in cold, rainy England facing a mountain of work, a.k.a. final year. Here’s a trip down memory lane with an A-Z of my seven glorious months spent abroad as an English Language Assistant. Allez-y!

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is for Alsace . . .

. . . the smallest region in metropolitan France, yet one of unparalleled olde worlde villages and towns, a beautiful national park and stunning landscapes. Alsace will forever remain in my heart as a place filled with special, unforgettable moments and memories.

is for British Council Assistantship . . .

. . . which is a fantastic year abroad opportunity! I spent my year abroad as an English Language Assistant, and couldn’t recommend the British Council’s language assistant programme highly enough. Although there are no guarantees that you’ll get your region of choice, it’s an incredible experience wherever you end up.

C is for Colmar . . .

. . . my home from home abroad. To my utter disbelief and amazement, I actually got the exact place I had mentioned on my application form. Colmar is a quaint and picturesque town: the half-timbered multicoloured buildings make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, whilst the beautiful Quai de la Poissonnerie and Petite Venise never fail to impress.

D is for Determination . . .

. . . which is needed in abundance to get through the year abroad. When faced with half the Amazon rainforest in paperwork and ridiculously complicated administrative systems, a decent dose of motivation is required to get through it all.

E is for Embarrassing Moments . . .

. . . of which there are many: take addressing my responsable as ‘Monsieur’, when it turned out to be a female name for one, or how about the occasion when I was sat on by a blind lady on the train on the day I arrived? Later on on my  first day, I was asked by a member of staff at my school if I’d like to meet his son, who was “. . . 24 ans, sportif, grand . . .” (apparently it’s normal to advertise your single children) and on a separate occasion, when out with my boyfriend, an elderly man decided to pose the following question: “vous êtes marié?” At times, the year abroad is but a series of embarrassing moments!

F is for Festival du Film de Colmar . . .

. . . where, for the first time, I watched a French film in a genuine French cinema and – wait for it – really enjoyed it! Up until then, I’d watched only a (very small!) handful of French films which weren’t totally bizarre. I went to two screenings, both of which were absolutely free, and saw La Famille Bélier and Les Héritiers. If you find yourself in Colmar this year, be sure not to miss this fantastic event.

G is for Galette des Rois . . .

. . . a celebration so great it has its own Mr Men book (which I’m proud to say I own.) It’s a pastry which is eaten to celebrate epiphany; it’s sold in every reputable boulangerie and is often available in different flavours. Hidden inside is a small figurine; the person whose slice contains the figurine is the roi and this person gets to wear the crown and select their reine.

H is for Holidays . . .

. . . of which there are many in France! Every six to eight weeks, there would be a fortnight off; only a week after starting work it was already les Vacances de la Toussaint! The fairly frequent holidays were a great opportunity to explore places both near to (my adopted) home and further afield. There were also other intermittent days off, such as Armistice day, and plenty of weekends to make the most of – a particular highlight being a weekend spent in Bodensee, in southern Germany.

I is for Insel Mainau

. . . one of the prettiest places I visited whilst abroad. Insel Mainau is a small island, a stone’s throw from the town of Konstanz. It’s filled with beautiful floral displays (including a huge sunflower and a giant peacock) constructed entirely from neatly pruned shrubbery and flowers, cascading water features and indoor greenhouses filled with flowers and butterflies.

J is for Je Suis Charlie . . .

. . . which highlighted France’s solidarity in the wake of such a terrible event. Although I wasn’t in Paris, it was clear that it was an event which affected people in all corners of l’Hexagone and the manifestation held in Colmar demonstrated a sense of community, across a nation, which I don’t think exists in quite the same way in the UK.

K is for Kannst dü Ëlsässisch redde?

. . . to which the answer is, unfortunately, no. Although Alsatian (Ëlsässisch) is a regional language, the French government does recognise it in their list of official languages of France. Unfortunately, the language is in decline; today it’s typically the older generation who speak Alsatian amongst themselves in cafés over un café et une viennoiserie.

L is for La Banette . . .

. . . my favourite bakery in Colmar, conveniently located at the end of my road. I ignited a love for chocolate-banana croissants (which I’d never seen before, nor have seen since) and became the stereotypical baguette-wielding caricature of la vie française.

M is for Marchés de Noël . . .

. . . which I visited a lot of! I went to Christmas markets in Alsace, Lorraine and Burgundy, alongside one in Switzerland. I discovered that jus de pommes chaud was, in several cases, actually warm cider and that compote de pommes was the best crêpe filling going. Besides the superb markets in Colmar and Strasbourg, two other Alsatian Christmas markets are worthy of a special mention: the medieval-themed markets in Ribeauvillé (special kudos to the schoolchildren dressed as Christmas trees) and those in Breitenbach, which are held in a former brewery.

N is for “non” . . .

. . . which to any testosterone-fuelled Frenchman, translates as “try harder”. Case in point: the two very persistent men we met in Les Trois Singes who (after many failed chat-up lines) told us that ‘Alsace is like Vegas, only more little’ [sic] before eventually leaving to chat up some other girls.

O is for Over already?

. . . sadly, the answer is yes. I still can’t quite believe my year abroad is over (and has been for five months!) but the French have got one thing sussed, and that is that “au revoir” really does mean “until next time”. So, à bientôt l’Alsace!

P is for Pretzels . . .

. . . both salty and sweet. Pretzels were a feature in any decent boulangerie in Alsace, and they were the perfect snack! In Colmar’s covered market Le Secret de Justin sold just about every type of pretzel you could imagine.

Q is for Qui sera le prochain grand pâtissier?

. . . a programme which made the inability to watch The Great British Bake Off slightly less traumatic. It’s more like a baking version of MasterChef, but the challenges were great fun to watch and I did pick up some extra vocabulary!

R is for Rendez-vous Bundesplatz . . .

. . . a spectacular light show that Olivia and I stumbled upon in Bern. It certainly compensated for not managing to make it to the Fête des Lumières in Lyon.

S is for Storks . . .

. . . which perch on top of tall buildings, fly gracefully across the Alsatian plain and preen in front of visitors, because they’re worth it. In spring, lots of storks nest in Parc de l’Orangerie in Strasbourg, and many more can be seen in the towns in and around la Vallée de Munster – just look out for a sign denoting somewhere as a “Village Cigogne d’Alsace”. Don’t miss out on the chance to buy the ultimate souvenir: a stork hat.

T is for Terminales . . .

. . . and all the other lovely classes I taught at Lycée Blaise Pascal. Alongside teaching them the best of British culture, they gave me memories I’ll never forget. A particular highlight was producing sketches encouraging people to join up to the army, which concluded with one “soldier” cheerily saying “I’m lovin’ it”. Christmas pictionary provided much hilarity (someone’s drawing of a polar bear was deemed to be a “Christmas sheep”), as did April Fool’s Day and Cockney Rhyming Slang.

U is for Unterlinden . . .

. . . a fabulous museum and one of the most visited in France outside of Paris. It’s renowned for housing the Retable d’Issenheim, a magnificent ornate altarpiece. When I visited, it was undergoing restorative works to expand the museum; hopefully I’ll be able to go back and see it in its entirety one day!

V is for Vosges . . .

. . . a stunning national park which I was lucky enough to live so close to. Throughout the year I went on numerous walks, seeing waterfalls, lakes, assorted animals (including a cute little field mouse and some donkeys!), stones indicating the former Western Front, trenches and German barracks. From the Vosges, it’s possible to see as far as La Forêt-Noire, in Germany, on a clear day!

W is for Winter Sports . . .

. . . which are such fun! I went snowshoeing with my colleagues, went sledging for the first time in my life and even managed to try skiing! If only England got enough snow for these activities . . .

X is for Xerox . . .

. . . a.k.a. the school photocopying machine. Being able to print resources gave me more flexibility in the classroom, enabling fun activities to take place like listening to “I’m On My Way” and putting the lyrics in the right order!

Y is for Yes . . .

. . . a word which is arguably the key to making the most of a year abroad. Saying ‘yes’ (within reason) can open up so many opportunities that you might otherwise never experience: I learnt how to make bredelas (a traditional Christmas biscuit), tried raclette and made some headway in learning to ski.

Z is for zzz’s . . .

. . . something I became particularly adept at doing on most forms of public transport. Any journeys taken early in the morning were simply an opportunity to catch up on a bit more sleep before appreciating the views as the TGV whizzed through the countryside.

If you want to read more about my year abroad, check out my year abroad blog 🙂

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