I’m back with part two of a three-part post on small town French life. Today’s post takes a slightly less cheerful turn as I take an honest look at the most difficult parts about living in the middle of nowhere. But fear not! I will be back soon with a list of recommendations for making the best of TAPIF in a small town … it’s not always easy, but it IS possible to survive and thrive!
- You will sometimes feel like you’re living in a ghost town.
“Where on earth are all the people?” is the number one question I ask myself in
Domfront. It doesn’t matter what day it is or what time it is; the streets are inevitably 90% deserted. To clarify, I do see a fair amount of people driving by on the road that runs through town, which is actually quite busy with trucks carrying hay, wood, animals, and cheese going by. Pedestrians, on the other hand, can be few and far between. I don’t quite know if this is because there are so few people here, or because I’ve been the only one brave enough to wander to streets of Domfront during the cold* winter months … I’m leaning towards the second theory, because I think that the number of people out and about lately has been slowly increasing. Nevertheless, I’ve often had the impression that some sort of apocalypse has taken place when I wander through the town and see the empty streets, and the empty businesses too. Which brings me to my next point …
*Despite French protestations to the contrary, it’s not actually that cold here in the winter.
2. Everything is always closed, or opens/runs at the most bizarre and inconvenient times.
When I’m back in Canada, one of the things I love most is that if I ever need something – groceries, medicine, clothes, emergency pizza – chances are that I can immediately go out and get it, no matter what time it is. Being a night owl, I’m way more productive in the evening than I am in the morning; I love that I have until 10:00 PM to get my grocery shopping done, and that I can try on clothes at the shopping mall until 9:00 PM. And Sunday is one of my favourite days to go shopping!
Unfortunately, life in small town France is not well suited to chronic shopping procrastinators. Nothing, I repeat nothing is open past 7:30 PM, with the exception of restaurants (and most businesses close earlier). Furthermore, everything is closed on Sundays (and often Mondays) except for the boulangeries. This means that if I put off grocery shopping and don’t make it to the grocery store before 7:30 PM on Saturday, my fridge will be food-less until Monday or later (the only alternative being stocking up on pastries from the boulangerie … there goes my diet!). All businesses are closed between 12:30 and 2:00 PM, too, so that everyone can enjoy a 1.5-hour lunch break. This is a lovely idea, in theory, except that I most definitely do not need 1.5 hours to eat, and would love to spend the rest of my lunch break doing something productive … like shopping!
The best example of bizarre opening times is the local médiathèque (library). The médiathèque is closed on all but four days of the week, and opens at 11:00 AM … only to close an hour later! After lunch, it opens again for three hours (2:30 to 5:30 PM), which is a bit more reasonable. But seriously, if the médiathèque is only open for one hour in the morning, why bother?!
3. Transportation is an issue.
Oh transportation, the bane of my existence here in small town Normandy! During my first few months here, when I had no wifi and felt cut off from the world, weekend trips away from Domfront were what kept me from going completely insane. Unfortunately, travel is a little tricky to arrange when you live in a small town with no train station, for several reasons:
- In Domfront, the bus out of town only runs from Monday to Friday, which means that weekend day trips are out of the question; you have to leave on a Friday can’t return until Monday. When you take work scheduling into account, this can be tricky.
- The bus runs infrequently and does not line up well with the train schedule in Flers. This means that when I need to catch a train, I either arrive super early and have to sit around the train station for two hours or more, or I arrive with only a few minutes to spare and have to literally sprint from the bus to the train.
- Since the bus runs only a few times per day, I can’t just nip over to Flers for a short shopping trip; I have to reserve a full day or half day to make the trip there and back. This doesn’t usually work out with my teaching schedule.
- Sometimes the bus doesn’t show up at all! And then you miss your train 😡
In the last few months, I’ve managed to get around these problems by asking kind teachers for rides to and from Flers, which I was hesitant to do before. As someone who values her independence, I get a bit embarrassed asking for favours all the time! Despite help from my colleagues, the transportation situation is still annoying and definitely the worst part about living in a small French town.
4. Everyone knows who you are.
I’ve mentioned before that as the local assistante, and as an Anglo-Saxonne, everyone seems to either know me or know of me. I also stated that it was kind of cool feeling like a local celebrity. Let me tell you, that feeling wears off eventually! While it’s nice to hear a friendly “hello” from a student as I walk through the town, there are a lot of times when I would prefer NOT to be seen, like when I’m in sweatpants and carrying a load of heavy clothes and sheets up the hill to the laundromat, or when I’m returning red-faced and sweaty from a run. I also find it a bit hard to relax when I’m out and about; I feel like I always have to be in “professional” mode, because I will inevitably be “spotted” by some student driving by with his or her parents, or waiting in line at the supermarket. That’s not to say that I turn into a wild party animal when I’m not working (quite the contrary, apart from the occasional 90s dance party all alone in my kitchen); it’s just that I like to be able to dress down a bit and do a makeup-free grocery run in my sweatpants from time to time. Whenever I do so, I inevitably regret it the next day when a student approaches me with a “Madame, I saw you at Intermarché yesterday!”
(The funniest example of this happened the week after my assistant friends came to visit me, when I had not one, but TWO students excitedly tell me that “I saw you at Carrefour on the weekend with friends!” It just goes to show how seeing me out and about with other human beings is a rare occurrence in this town!
This should be the official Domfront theme song.
5. Sometimes you will be lonely.
Being the only assistant in Domfront and working a mere twelve hours per week, I spend the majority of my time alone. While I am a natural introvert and do enjoy having time to myself, the truth is that sometimes the solitude becomes oppressive and difficult to deal with. It’s funny because I am so used to looking forward to the weekend that I always get a huge sense of relief when Friday arrives, quickly replaced by a sinking feeling when I realize that I’ll be completely alone for three whole days (I don’t usually work Mondays). Solitude in moderation is glorious; solitude in excess is stifling.
If I’m being 100% honest, being alone in Domfront is the thing I regret most about my experience as a teaching assistant in France. Not in the sense that I should have done something differently, because I had little control over where I was placed, but in the sense that I often wonder what could have been if I had been placed elsewhere. I love spending time with my assistant friends from other towns, but I’m always a little bit envious of their experience. Their adventure in France has been one of togetherness: living together, discovering their town together, travelling together, and learning together. Although I’ve been truly blessed to have met them and we’ve shared a lot of experiences together, my France adventure has mostly been a solitary one. As the end of my time in Domfront approaches, I have renewed confidence in my own resilience and self-sufficiency, but I can’t help but think how difference my time in France would have been if I’d had another assistant here with me.
And on that slightly depressing note … here are some pictures of my small and rather empty, yet very beautiful, middle-of-nowhere town! (I realized that I haven’t really posted any yet)
Bisous et à la prochaine fois!