I arrived in Poitiers late evening, glad to be greeted by Julie – who I had shared a flat with the year before, in Wolverhampton – and her French husband, A. I had specifically chosen Poitiers as my destination in France, knowing that Julie had spent part of her year abroad there and had returned to get married.
Julie and A had kindly offered to put me up, in their small studio apartment in the centre of town, while I looked for more permanent accommodation. They also introduced me to their circle of friends, which gave me an opportunity to acclimatise to my new surroundings.
At the end of the first week, the three of us were invited to a cheese fondue party – a jolly affair, marred only by the fact that I was having great difficulty communicating with anyone. Although I had been learning French for 10 years, I had never visited France to practise the language – except on a school trip with my German penfriend, B, when I was 15.
B’s class was due to spend a week in Alsace, and she had managed to arrange a place for me. As I was the only one who knew any French, her friends kept getting me to ask for things in the French shops. But the shopkeepers kept asking me to speak German, which seemed odd – until French friends in Poitiers told me that, when I first arrived, I spoke French with a German accent.
It was even more complicated than that. Having spent the previous 5 months in Essen, speaking only German, my brain seemed to be locked into a single thought: “OK – now we need to speak ‘foreign’ – and ‘foreign’ equals German.”
So, even though I started sentences in faltering French, my brain would rapidly switch over to German, without me noticing it, to finish the sentence – completely confusing whoever I was talking to. Fortunately, my brain fairly soon got on board, and a sense of reasonable normality was restored.
* * *
After a week staying with Julie and A, there was a vacancy at the Jeanne d’Arc, an all-female Halls of Residence located a short walk away from the central market square, Place du Marché.
All of the more comfortable, permanent rooms were already taken, but there were several temporary beds in what felt rather like a hospital ward. I was allocated a slightly more private room next door, with 2 beds. I still felt overheard, though, as the corridor walls didn’t reach as far as the ceiling, and any conversation echoed round the whole wing. And in the night, you could hear the sound of cockroaches scuttling along the corridor from the shower room down the hall.
I initially shared the room with Barbara, a German girl from Hannover who was just spending a short time in Poitiers. I tried speaking to her in French – but she had spotted the German travel stickers on my suitcase, so we quickly reverted to German.
The permanent residents were either French or American. The American girls, who were studying French as a minor subject at university and had chosen to spend a year in France, were friendly and outgoing. They invited me to their university classes, parties and other nights out – and I could quite easily have spent all my time with them. But I was in Poitiers to improve my French language skills, and spending time with the American girls wasn’t going to achieve that aim. So I persevered in my quest to make French friends.
The French girls at Jeanne d’Arc were much harder to get to know. On the odd occasions when they came down to the shared kitchen for a coffee, I would introduce myself, ask their names, where they were from, and what they were studying. Every single one was studying Law, Medicine or Pharmacy – all highly demanding subjects. As a result, they spent most of their time with their noses in a book and didn’t appear to be interested in making conversation.
After a month where I had made no progress whatsoever in getting to know any French students, Barbara announced she was driving home to Hannover for Easter and asked if I would like a lift to Essen. I was feeling so lonely that I jumped at the offer to spend a week with my German friends – where I felt welcome – even if it was simply delaying the inevitable task of breaking down the barriers that prevented me from making friends in Poitiers.
* * *
After a nurturing week with my friends in Essen – who listened empathetically while I described how difficult I was finding it to make friends in France – I returned to Poitiers feeling refreshed and even more determined to get to know some French students.
I eventually managed to enrol at the university – although even that basic task had required a large amount of resilience.
When I initially went to the enrolment desk, I was told that I couldn’t enrol in February – that I should have enrolled at the start of the academic year, in October. I explained that everything had been arranged between Poitiers University and Wolverhampton Polytechnic, and that they should have all my details on file – which they did.
I was then told I couldn’t enrol at the university unless I had a Carte de Séjour – a temporary residence permit which I would have to get from the police department at the Préfecture. But when I arrived at the Préfecture, I was told that I couldn’t get a Carte de Séjour until I had enrolled as a student at the university.
After going back and forth a couple of times, I enlisted Julie’s help. Fortunately she had a friend at the Préfecture, who she asked to intervene.
After a bit more paper shuffling, my Carte de Séjour was duly presented to me and I could, at last, enrol at the university. And, as a bona fide student, I could move in to the Rabelais Halls of Residence on campus, sign up for classes and join in weekend activities at the university.
Whereas, in Essen, it was common for most students to stay in the Halls of Residence at the weekend while some occasionally went home, in Poitiers the majority of students went home most weekends. So there was a Catch 22 situation at the university: very little was organised over the weekend, because there were very few students, and very few students stayed because there wasn’t much to do at the university at the weekend.
Nevertheless, I managed to find a badminton club which gathered every Saturday. I hadn’t played badminton since my school days, but I had always enjoyed it – and, as with the hockey club in Wolverhampton, it gave me the opportunity to meet people with a specific purpose and made it easier to have normal conversations in place of the list of ‘get to know you’ questions I had resorted to at Jeanne d’Arc.
One weekend, my badminton partners invited me to their apartment to watch the France versus England rugby match. I wasn’t a huge rugby fan, but I had been to Twickenham stadium the year before to see England play Scotland, and I had enjoyed it enough to consider watching another game in the comfort of someone’s living room. The small gathering was all rooting for the French team, of course, but I didn’t mind being outnumbered – it introduced an air of friendly competition and much laughter.
I was offered home-cooked popcorn, which I accepted with pleasure – although I nearly spat it straight out again when my taste buds realised that, in France, they put salt on popcorn instead of sugar. Once again, I had been blindsided by an assumption that I knew what to expect. But after I got over my surprise, I was able to enjoy the popcorn in the spirit that it had been offered – as a gift from friends.
I was still finding it difficult to get to know other French students, though – so a couple of weeks later I went along to a gathering of the Franco-German club at the university in the hope that, even if I didn’t meet any French students, I might meet some German students.
About a dozen students turned up on the evening, and I soon discovered that I was the only one who wasn’t French. One girl, F, asked if I was German.
“No” I said. “I’m English.” She appeared confused, so I explained why I was there.
“What do you do at the weekends?” she asked then.
“On Saturdays, between twelve and one, I play badminton.”
After a brief pause, she asked: “Would you like to come home to my parents’ house for the weekend?”
Words can’t explain how happy I felt at that moment. My perseverance had paid off – even if it had required a rather unorthodox approach. I didn’t realise at the time that, once you have one French friend, it’s almost like being accepted into a clan – and it becomes much easier to make other friends.
As we left the meeting, I felt elated. By the door, a young man was playing guitar. He had apparently come along for the folk club – but as he was the only attendee, he had joined our group instead.
I had brought my Dad’s classical guitar from home after Christmas, but so far I had only mastered the three most basic chords and wanted to learn more. I decided to be bold – so I introduced myself to the young man and asked if he would be willing to give me guitar lessons. At the very least, I thought, it would be another opportunity to practise speaking French.
The young man introduced himself as D and agreed to teach me to play guitar in return for English conversation, as he was studying English at university. As it turned out, he was already very fluent and had a great accent – but I didn’t mind helping him practise his English.
He was French, and that was a start.