(Thanks to Tenx9 for the photo. Who doesn’t need a set of crocheted undergarments? There’s LSB’s Christmas gift sorted.)
Oh people, what an absolute cracker of a night was had in The Black Box at Tenx9. It’s an evening where you manage to come out tickled and humbled. Last night my ribs were sore from laughing during some tales, and I struggled to hold back tears in another. You never know what you’re going to hear next, and one story can be as poignant as the next is hysterical. Or maybe it’s both, and therein lies the joy, along with the whole delightful absurdity of the human condition.
My offering on the theme of Regret is below, and I urge you to check out the podcasts from some of the other stories. Make a cup of tea, preferably Barrys, (since it’s Richard O’Leary’s preferred brew, and he’s a seasoned Tenx9 story teller and a committed tea-drinker) and get listening.
Some of you may remember a story about my time on Réunion Island, where I went to improve my French as part of my degree. You may also recall that I didn’t, in fact, develop my language skills much at all, instead sampling the delights of this idyllic isle, and hanging out with the other teaching assistants, most of whom were English.
So enamoured with the experience was I, that I applied for another post as an assistant in Corsica, as by now, I had developed a penchant for island life. I thus finished my degree and half-heartedly applied for a PGCE as a back up plan and booked no fewer than 3 flights to go to Corsica in September 2001.
Now, language assistants, since they are often young and gormless, are assigned a ‘réponsable’ to look out for them when they first arrive. My ‘réponsable’ on Reunion had been called Alain Cretineau, and he was every bit as cretinous as his name suggested. He batted away my questions with a flick of the wrist and let me use neither the telephone, nor the internet to let my parents know that I had arrived safely.
(My poor mum agonised for days, drawing solace only from the fact that she didn’t hear any news footage of Air France planes plunging into the Indian Ocean.)
But when my predecessor from Queen’s who’d been in Corsica the year before, contacted me, she assured me that this would not be the case this time. She was full of rapturous praise for Elizabeth, who would be my ‘réponsable’. ‘Ohh she’s wonderful,’ she gushed. ‘Une ange!’ Deborah was one of those annoying people who continued to pepper her conversation with French words long after she’d returned to Irish soil.
So I rang Elizabeth to announce my arrival and hopefully be put up for a day or two at the start of my séjour. But the conversation didn’t go as I’d hoped. It went something like this:
Allo? (sullen voice of male, possibly a teenager.)
Bonjour! (Me chipper) Je m’appelle…… So in French I said I’m ‘Helen, I’m the language assistant, can I speak to Elizabeth please.’
Non. Elle est morte. (In more sullen tones, the young fellow appears to be telling me that his mother is dead. I imagine I’ve misheard and blather on.)
Non, mais je suis l’assistante irlandaise et….
ELLE EST DECEDÉE! This time I understand and mutter ‘Mon Dieu! Désolé!’ before hanging up.
Elizabeth would thus not be waiting for me at the airport with open arms because she was suddenly and inexplicably deceased. ‘Oh shit,’ I said.
Then 2 days later on September the 11th as I bought a few last minute items for my trip, I saw on a TV screen what appeared to be a joke as the twin towers came crashing down.
The world appeared to be going mad. I was feeling a bit unhinged myself. ‘Should I go? Or stay in Belfast and wait for the world to end here?’ I didn’t know, but if we WERE on the brink of the apocalypse, perhaps it would be better with a fabulous red for which Corsica was famed in hand. So off I went.
In the absence of Elizabeth’s hospitality, I stayed my first few nights in a grimy boarding area of a local school. Luckily, another teacher, Fabienne, came to my rescue. In fact, the other assistants and I spent so much time at her house that she devised a system whereby we paid 30 francs if we wanted a vegetarian meal, or 40 if she threw in some chicken. Given that the wine flowed at these soirées, this was quite a bargain. There was still the problem of my lodgings, but once again, Fabienne was on to it.
She rang me with great news after a week and a half of living in squalor at the school. ‘I’ve found you somewhere and ‘c’est parfait!’ she said with glee, before escorting me to an apartment in her blue citroën 2CV. She had good reason to be excited. The flat was above a boulangérie, so the aroma of freshly baked goods wafted up to the balcony, which overlooked the Mediterranean. My bedroom was spacious, the rent was cheap and Geneviève, my future room-mate seemed lovely and normal. I moved in immediately and Geneviève took to cooking me specialities from Aix-en-Provence where she came from, and we ate delicious meals with a glass of sweet muscat as an aperitif to start, sitting on the balcony under starry skies. She had a large boxer dog by the name of Kitsy, with whom I got along famously, especially when I took him for walks along the beach several times a day.
Now unlike Reunion, where I worked a limited number of hours, here, I worked hardly any. The college to which I had been assigned, were having staffing issues, and my role was far down their list of priorities. Each week they would say, ‘We don’t need you, we’ll call you on Monday.’ This might sound perfect, but when the other assistants were busy at their jobs, and the only other people expressing interest in me were salacious men in cafés, it got quite lonely. I felt unnerved, especially when I turned on the TV and saw that the French too, were convinced that the end was nigh. Every channel showed footage of nuclear warheads being fired up and grave-looking Parisians holding up envelopes they thought contained anthrax but were actually washing powder. I tried going to the gym. I tried immersing myself in literature, but I grew more anxious by the day.
This was exacerbated by Geneviève’s ex-boyfriend, who took to landing round at the flat. He was a pugnacious chap who bore a striking resemblance to the dog, except the features which make a boxer so handsome beast don’t translate quite so well on to the human visage. His visits only served to upset the dog, who clearly resented his master’s impromptu leaving, and he took to urinating extensively over the furniture in a fit of pique. Facts slowly unfolded that Geneviève had only booted Luc out of the house a mere two days before I was asked to move in. It was all very awkward.
One day, after Luc arrived unexpectedly I took the dog for a walk to get out of the flat. Kitsy was unsettled and pulled hard at his lead. His mood was not improved when a small, West Highland Terrier had a bit of a yap at him. He took off, and proceeded to shake the Westie like a rat. Naturally his owner went berserk. ‘Prends ton chien, prends ton chien!’ he yelled, but I had no mission of wrenching Kitsy off. All I managed was a feeble, ‘Mais ce n’est pas mon chien,’ (It’s not my dog!) by way of explanation. Kitsy finally released the Westie, who miraculously remained unhurt, although tufts of white fur flew in the wind. His owner had fallen on his arse during the tussle, and it was all rather frosty. The dog, upon returning to the flat, went straight outside and hid on the balcony. He knew he’d been bold.
Two months in, I decided I’d had enough. I booked a flight, or rather 3 of them, and left. So cross was I about the school’s lack of concern for my well-being, that I didn’t even tell them I was going. The caretaker eventually called to the flat to make sure that I had neither: ‘been kidnapped or killed’ or so it was reported to me. Speaking of which, I finally discovered what had befallen Elizabeth. Turns out the ‘réponsable’ had been none too responsible at all, and this lady, famous for her pearls and twin-sets, had managed to asphyxiate herself in an act of auto-eroticism. Not so angelic after all, then. The newspapers had ruled out third-party involvement and concluded it was ‘la plaisir solitaire’ that had finished her off. No wonder her son had sounded so glum on the phone.
So did I regret going to Corsica? Well, it wasn’t a roaring success. I came home 7 months early and it took a while to regain any semblance of equilibrium. On the plus side though, my French progressed exponentially, because Geneviève’s English had been non-existent and she spoke very very fast.
It also taught me a hefty dose of humility. After my year on Réunion, I had been a bit dismissive when students complained about their year out. ‘It’s what you make of it,’ I had thought. But no matter what I tried to do in Corsica, I couldn’t make it work. It wasn’t an easy lesson, and it didn’t do my liver any good, but ultimately, I feel grateful for the experience.