If one wished to escape the ‘Oxford Bubble’, a remote farm in the south of France wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Cloisters are replaced by plum trees, essays by fruit picking, and, most significantly, rain by blistering heat. The only outside information I receive is when I occasionally get enough phone signal to refresh Twitter, and I haven’t heard the word ‘deadline’ in what feels like years. In fact, when I arrived at the small farm near a town called Condom (no, really), where I was to stay for a month, I thought I had found paradise. I was on the brink of making a call to Dante, to spread the good news about my revelation, when I started to recognise certain feelings from my time in Oxford.
This account is in no way prescriptive of the way in which working abroad will feel for everyone – my spoken French was admittedly terrible and I was awfully inexperienced. This wasn’t as much diving into the deep-end as it was throwing myself headfirst into the Mariana Trench.
Everyone at Oxford has those tutorials where, for example, they leave thinking they never, ever want to hear the name Proust ever again. Imagine leaving that tutorial and heading to hall, where you ask for the ever so slightly dodgy-looking lasagne. “Of course. But first, how is comedy presented in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu and what does it contribute to the novel as a whole?” You take your meal, sit down with your friends, and your neighbour turns to you and says: “Hey, how was your day? Also, how is Proust’s ‘Involuntary Memory’ presented in terms of narrative structure?” You return to your room to watch Netflix and your password is suddenly a two-thousand-word essay on the subject, ‘What is Time?’ That’s sort of what it feels like to be immersed fully in another language for the first time.
Living out your degree in such a way, you are constantly tested, even with the most basic of tasks. It felt like a never-ending exam at the start, and there was the constant fear that one day I would be found out as not quite as adept as I had made out and would be rudely ejected. Every conversation was like a lecture as my brain scrambled to keep up and absorb as much information as possible. I even started taking notes afterwards of everything I had learnt. At the end of each day, I was exhausted, my brain having had to work at tutorial speed for over twelve hours, non-stop.
As with essays, my speech was a lot of regurgitation of that which I had garnered from other people: I picked up stock phrases, useful words that I could apply when necessary. As I progressed – over the space of just a couple of weeks – it soon started coming more naturally, and I felt that I was becoming myself when I spoke, instead of a patchwork of the people around me. I realised that speaking and making mistakes is easier and more helpful than not speaking at all – even if the lunchtime conversation revolves around all the words you have mispronounced or even created that day.
Still, the exam continues, and I find myself worrying when I receive a message from a friend from home about how I am going to do the conjugations in my reply, before remembering I can reply in English. When an English person arrives at the shop, it feels like breaking cover – like this act I’m putting on can cease for a second while I catch my breath.
However, more and more frequently I find myself quizzing the French people around me on the peculiarities of their language: why “pas terrible” means really very terrible, why we get dressed to the nines and they get dressed to the thirty ones, and why you might “faire le baiser” to someone in public but you certainly wouldn’t “baiser” them. I often reach for the dictionary to search for words out of curiosity, and I constantly pester those around me to explain things – much to their annoyance, I’m sure. In short: I remember why I chose to study languages.
It’s that tutorial you almost don’t want to leave, or that book you bang on about at dinner despite the eye rolls from your friends. Every day is an exam but every day it gets easier. I go to bed wondering what I’ll get wrong the next day. It’s exciting.