How to Survive Being Placed in a Small French Town All By Yourself (Part 1: The Pros)

I’m back from a rather long blogging hiatus to bring you another three-part post about life in France! Today is Part 1 … stay tuned for parts 2 and 3, coming soon!


After I applying to the TAPIF program last winter, and before I knew exactly where I would be placed, I spent a lot of time imagining what my life in France would be like. In my more more optimistic moments, my brain presented me with scenarios like this:

Scenario #1: Julia is placed in the biggest city of her first or second choice académie, Grenoble or Montpellier. Both cities have a large student population, so there is no shortage of cheap housing and there are many places to go out and meet new friends. Since Julia lives in such a big city, there are plenty of other language assistants from all over the world who live there too. Julia therefore has a built-in group of friends with whom she can travel all over Europe, explore Grenoble/Montpellier, and occasionally vent about the French school system. Julia doesn’t need to worry too much about transportation because Julia lives in a city with buses, taxis, and (most importantly) a train station. She makes use of this train station to go on frequent day trips to surrounding towns, maybe to go hiking in the mountains (Grenoble) or to go to the beach (Montpellier). At school, she becomes friends with all of the teachers and her perfectly behaved students have a true passion for the English language. If she is ever lonely, she simply arranges a Skype date with her family or her friends back home or watches a movie using her high-speed wifi connection. Julia is never ever lonely and thrives in her new French life. 

Of course, I can also be a bit of a pessimist, so sometimes my imaginings were more like this:

Scenario #2 (Worst Case Scenario): Julia is placed in her third choice académie, or in an académie that she didn’t choose, or just in a very small town. There is not much to do in her town, and worse still, housing is not provided by the school even though there are hardly any apartments for rent. There are also no other assistants in her town, so she is very lonely. Her only solace is going to the train station and going on day trips all by herself (because every town in France has a train station, right?). At school, the teachers are hostile and make it known to her that her presence is useless, and her students are little delinquents. Wifi hasn’t yet made it to backwoods France, so she is completely cut off from her family and friends back home (and from civilization in general). Julia has no friends and spends her seven months in France crying in her room, alone and miserable.

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“Are you at all concerned about being sent to a small French town all by yourself?”

If you’ve been reading my blog so far, you probably know what scenario is closer to the truth. If you haven’t … well, the answer is Scenario 2, at least in terms of where I was placed! In some ways, reality was even worse than what I had dreamed: I was sent to my third choice académie and to an even smaller town than I had imagined. There are no other assistants here in Domfront, there is no train station, and the buses don’t even run on the weekends. I also didn’t have a wifi connection until mid-December (the horror!). Nevertheless, my experience in Domfront has also turned out a whole lot better than I expected; I’ve made great friends, I enjoy my work, I have wonderful colleagues, and I’ve developed an appreciation for country life.

In short, this post goes out to all of you future assistants (or any current assistants reapplying for TAPIF) who are afraid of being placed in a small town next year all by yourself. Yes, it will be a bit of an adjustment if you’re a city girl like me, and yes, you will sometimes be lonely and bored. Unlike my Scenario #2, however, you probably won’t spend all of your time crying (I mean, I do spend some time crying, but that’s usually limited to a certain time of the month or after I watch a particularly moving rom com). Without further ado, here’s my take on the small town French life: the pros, the cons, and some finally some advice on how you can make the best of your time abroad.

THE PROS

  1. A small town in France typically has more to offer than a small town in Canada.

As I was relieved to find out when I first arrived, it’s a lot easier to live in a small town in France than it would be to live in a small town in Canada (or in the USA, for all the Americans out there). Although Domfront is small, most everything you really need is

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Some much needed nourishment from one of the local boulangeries.

right here. Need food? Visit one of two supermarkets. Have a sudden sugar craving? You have four boulangeries to choose from (yes, four – I discovered another one!). Need clothes?
Well, you’ll probably end up wearing the same thing as everyone else because there are only a couple of clothing stores in Domfront, but at least you’re not totally out of luck! Feel like going to the cinéma? Come relax in the lycée chapel every two weeks and watch a film that was released ages ago! You won’t even have to make a choice because there will only be one film on offer! Want to learn English? You’re in luck – come to the collège or lycée, and an astonishingly brilliant and attractive Canadian assistant will help you out 😛 Best of all, you don’t need a car; French towns are very condensed, which means that everything is accessible by foot. I’m pretty sure that in most Canadian small towns, you’d definitely need a car to avoid starving to death. So take comfort, future assistants: from banking to healthcare, from shopping to education, inhabitants of small French towns are generally well provided for.

2. Living in a small town could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

If I hadn’t applied for TAPIF, would I ever have willingly chosen to move to a small town in the middle of nowhere? One word: NO! I have always been a city girl and formerly considered Halifax, the city of nearly 400 000 people where I went to university, to be “small.” Not anymore! (I still would never want to move back there, though … sorry, Mom!)

What I’ve discovered since moving to Domfront is that while life in a small town is a whole

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Some of my friends.

lot quieter than life in the city, there’s definitely a simplicity and a beauty to it that I appreciate. Although Domfront is often so quiet and empty that it feels like a ghost town, there’s something nice about being able to leave the window open at night without worrying about traffic noise (except for the occasional truck carrying livestock, hay, or camembert) and being able to gaze at the stars with minimal light pollution to dim them. I like living somewhere that is surrounded by fields of green and getting to wave at my cow friends as I make my way up the hill to the lycée. Most surprisingly, I think I could actually be happy living in a small town with a family of my own someday, as long as I had a car. If you had told me that six months ago, I would never have believed it!

3. You get to know your town really well.

I’ve moved around quite a bit over the past five years, and one thing I’ve always wanted is

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Waiting for a dryer at the laundromat: the bane of my existence.

to become an “expert” on my town, to really get to know the place that I’m living. Well, the nice thing about Domfront is that it’s so small that I feel like I know it really well at this point! I have a favourite boulangerie (of course), I know the pros and cons of each supermarket, and I’ve dined at almost all of the restaurants in town (excluding the kebab place). I can give decent directions and I know the basic history of the castle, the church, and the town in general. I know the best time to go to the laundromat so that I don’t have to wait for a dryer, and I exactly how long each route from the collège to the lycée will take me. The coolest thing of all is that I personally know the people who produce the poiré (pear cider) sold at the supermarket and the pain d’épices (sort of like gingerbread) sold at the specialty shop on the main street. If anyone from the office de tourisme is reading this right now, feel free to hire me at any time 😛

4. You learn a lot by being alone.

Sometimes I do feel like a bit of a hermit here, and sometimes that is really tough. Nevertheless, I do try to take advantage of my alone time because I know that once I’m back in school, or working a full-time job, I won’t have nearly as much time to devote to myself and to various hobbies and projects. I will admit that a fair amount of my time is spent watching Netflix, but I have been working away at various other projects, including:

  • Knitting: I’ve been working on this afghan ever since I arrived and I’m almost done! Plus I love knitting while watching tv, so I can kind of justify the Netflix 🙂
  • Reading: Since Christmas, I’ve been part of an online book club based on the Popsugar 2016 Ultimate Reading Challenge and I’ve been more excited to read than I’ve been in a long time. The first book we read, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, was AMAZING and I highly recommend it. Seriously, go read it!
  • Sketching: For Christmas, my sister Laura gave me a sketchbook and markers to motivate me to get back into drawing. I’m no Picasso, but I’ve been enjoying sketching scenes from my travels as a way of preserving the memories.
  • Running: I haven’t hit the trails nearly as much I as should, but I’ve gone running often enough to discover some truly spectacular country scenery on the trails around town.
  • Cooking: Preparing meals in a small and poorly-equipped kitchen is quite the challenge, especially with one hot plate shared between three people, so I’ve been trying out some new one pot recipes to minimize the mess. This sundried tomato pasta is my favourite so far.
  • Blogging: ‘Nuff said.

I also think that because I’m the only assistant here, I’ve learned to be even more self sufficient. I’ve had to set up wifi by myself, get a SIM card for my phone, open a bank account, plan trips and arrange transportation, kill the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my entire life … the list goes on. While it’s not always easy, I am proud of myself for doing as well as I have, and it’s a huge confidence boost to (re)discover that if I need something done, I can do it myself.*

*However, when I am NOT alone, I fully intend to turn to others to kill gigantic spiders. Ok? Ok.

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I kid you not, this spider on my bedroom wall was almost as big as my palm. I did manage to kill it, but I’m fairly sure that the assistant principal next-door thought that I was being murdered.

5. There are less “problem students” at school.

One thing I constantly hear from my teacher colleagues is how happy they are to have been sent to Domfront instead of a school in one of the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the banlieues are home to large numbers of low-income and immigrant families and the schools there have the reputation of being really rough, so getting sent to a school in a Parisian banlieue is essentially every teacher’s worst

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A “typical” resident of the Parisian banlieue as seen in the 1995 film La Haine.

nightmare. In France, teachers are assigned to schools in the same way that teaching assistants are; they can pick up to three preferred académies, but the bottom line is that the French government can send them to work anywhere in the country. Can you guess how many of my teacher colleagues actually wanted to be placed in Domfront? You guessed it … basically nobody! And yet, I’ve heard from more than one teacher that although Domfront is not exactly a coveted placement, the students here are “good kids,” and I agree with them. I can’t say whether the stereotypes about the banlieue schools are true, but I can say that I’m lucky to be able to teach the students that I have. Their English might not be amazing, and some students will push you to see how much they can get away with, but the majority of the kids are curious, funny, kind, and respectful. As a first-time teaching assistant, I definitely appreciate that!

6. You get to avoid a lot of the most annoying things about living in France!

I was going to stop at five pros (because my next post will have five cons and, you know, balance and all that), but then yet another one came to mind as I was walking down the street in Flers (the closest sizeable town to Domfront) the other day and narrowly avoided stepping in a giant piece of dog poo on the sidewalk. I realized then that NOT ONCE have I come across dog poo on the sidewalk in Domfront, and that’s really saying something – when I was living in Dijon, I’d have to sidestep to avoid AT LEAST 4-5 piles of poop just to walk a couple hundred metres from my host family’s house to the tram stop. That was my number one pet peeve about France at the time (pick up after your pets, people!!!) and I’m pleased to say that it hasn’t been an issue in Domfront at all. Not only that, but I also avoid being constantly assaulted by the stench of cigarette smoke. Some people in Domfront do smoke, including a few of my students, but people in general are so few and far between here that the chances of being stuck walking behind someone who is emitting clouds of cigarette smoke are low. And grumpy waiters, shopkeepers, and customer service agents are nowhere to be found here; on the contrary, the friendliness of the Domfrontais never ceases to surprise me. If you’ve already experienced life in a large French city and are sick of dirty shoes, second-hand smoke, and rudeness, small town life might do you a world of good.

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The probability that this French lady will pick up her dog’s poop: basically zero.

Part 2 coming soon!

6 thoughts on “How to Survive Being Placed in a Small French Town All By Yourself (Part 1: The Pros)

  1. YAY book club!!!! 😀
    Good for you for having found so many positives in a situation that many people (probably including myself…) would run screaming from!! I definitely think you get back what you put into any experience, but TAPIF in particular. Good luck in the last month and a few weeks of your contract!! I hope you’re able to get out of Domfront for some of your April vacation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m quite surprised that I didn’t have one! Now that the weather’s getting warmer, I’m terrified that more of those giant spiders are going to start showing up …

      Like

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