My Big Fat French Life

Nantes City Centre, October 2010

Nantes city centre

It’s been a funny couple of weeks since I arrived in Nantes. Having extended my stay in Thailand, I had arrived back in the UK with only a week before I needed to leave again – meaning that, by the time I went, I was still reeling from having left behind my beloved Asia after my three months out there, and desperately wanting (as ever) to go back.

And so it was that, after a summer of busily darting up and down the map of Thailand on what sometimes seemed like one never-ending minibus journey, and then spending an even more frantic week doing a relay run of southern England, back and forth between London and Cornwall, I found myself with a new French life that frankly didn’t have a lot in it. For some reason or another, I had already chosen to politely turn down the offers of colleagues at my new school to stay at their homes, and had instead booked myself a night at a youth hostel in central Nantes – my plan being, as I have told many people for many months, to not worry myself about permanent accommodation until I was in the country. A great way to avoid paying extortionate agency fees or, worse still, being ripped off by some fraudster, but, as it turns out, not the quick, pain-free and stress-free way of doing things that I had hoped it might be.

Needless to say, one night in the youth hostel turned into two, three and eventually eleven. Which would have all been fine and dandy, apart from the reality that it would eventually have bankrupted me, had it not been for the bizarre policy of kicking you out of your room at 10am every morning, and closing the whole building between midday and half three in the afternoon. This was, for me, a completely new idea, though one which made me amusing thing of my grandmother, who once asked me when I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Cornwall whether I ‘had to be out during the day’. I had always assumed this was just her being a little crazy, and had never heard of anywhere actually having rules like this is place – though I had admittedly only stayed in the one youth hostel before, in Berlin in February, on a short weekend trip that marked the birth of this blog.

Each new day, then, was to involve a trudge around Nantes city centre, to see what I could find to do to waste a few pointless hours until I could get back into the warmth and dry of the hostel. Because, no, the weather wasn’t helping the situation – in fact, it had been overcast, grey and incessantly rainy every day for about the first week I was here. Everyone I met assured me that there had been beautiful weather just the week before, and that Nantes didn’t look quite this ugly and grey when the sun was shining – but at this point, needless to say, I was less than convinced.

Between eating too many quiches and drinking too many hot chocolates – anything to sit for just a little longer inside a warm or at least dry salon de thé while it poured down outside – I made my first journey to work for a short meeting about my working hours. And realised, as the tram and then the bus took scarily unsurvivable-looking turns around roundabouts through parts of town that were more and more resembling one big council estate, that, yes, I was certainly working in a rather less privileged part of the region than affluent-looking Nantes centre, itself not unlike Bath if you look at it from a certain angle. The meeting turned out to be a lot less painful than promised – I had been assured it was the most difficult thing in the world to agree on the split of my hours between the two schools I am assigned to work in, and that it might take a couple of hours, but we were done in twenty minutes. I came away with a not-half-bad looking timetable, either – two days off at once would have been the ideal scenario, but I can’t complain at having both Mondays and Wednesdays free.

Elsewhere, I began my search for somewhere to live in an admittedly lacklustre fashion, not particularly inspired by the seeming lack of housing stock on offer. Most of the ads posted online seemed to attract exorbitant agency fees, in other words the very ones I had wanted to avoid. But after a fellow English assistant, who I met at the hostel, suggested I try the classifieds at the youth advice centre at the bottom of the ghastly-looking Tour de Bretagne (it reminds me of a block in Colliers Wood, south London, which is regularly voted as the city’s worst eyesore), I plonked myself down with a list of phone numbers, at the train station of all places, for the most delicately poured vanilla latte ever, and quite possibly the most expensive by-the-hour public wi-fi connection too.

Several answerphone messages later (none of which were ever returned), having enquired with the foyer (room and studio housing complexes aimed at students on Erasmus exchanges and work placements) recommended by my school but having ascertained that they were full, I returned to the hostel in an even more downtrodden spirit, ready to call a second foyer suggested by the first. When what should I find, but a response to an e-mail I had sent a couple of days ago, about a flat advertised on the French personal classifieds site Leboncoin. Suddenly things look more promising – a gorgeous studio, judging by the pictures the landlady had attached, a great city centre location, and an even better price. Perhaps all a little too promising, then; particularly when her e-mail revealed that she lived in Caen, in the north of the country, and, having not had much luck renting the place until now, wanted some assurance that I was genuinely interested and serious about renting – assurance by way of the deposit and first month’s rent being sent by Western Union-style money transfer before I’d even seen the place.

The smell of gone off salmon began to permeate and, alas, several fiery e-mails later it turned out sure enough to be a scam – proving right all my colleagues and their friends who had so generously gone to great lengths to help me, and proving wrong my ever optimistic self, which was searching right up to the last minute for a reason for this mysterious landlady to be wanting to rent out her apartment at such a low rate. Perhaps the worst thing about the whole hoax, though, apart from getting my hopes up so unnecessarily, was that it had taken my eye off the ball as far as looking for somewhere was concerned; all my energy and time (given by this point I had started at work, just observing classes and doing introductions with the kids) had gone into following up on this one place, and now I had nothing.

Luckily, things were clearly meant to be, and a few days later I ended up finding and signing on the studio I now call home – it’s centrally located, in a good state and, to be honest, everything I need. So now, it’s on with that French life.

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