Home for Christmas: a Blablacar Adventure

From the moment he pulled out of the station car park and stormed mistakenly down a one way street, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride.

After several hitchhiking experiences on my trip, I had never been so bemused by a travel partner. And little did I know that within this six hour rideshare to Paris I was about to speak the most French I had ever spoken in my life.

Turns out Jean used to speak perfect English, until he suffered a severe stroke five years ago. Since then he has struggled with short term memory retention and his knowledge of English is limited to just a few phrases. Now fully recovered, despite the memory loss, he is so chirpy and positive about every aspect of his life. As we recklessly darted from one lane to the next on the motorway (four hours and counting) he described how certain memories from his childhood would be clear as day, and yet bafflingly, he had managed to forget an entire language. It’s truly bizarre how our brain works. He proudly told me about his family, beaming at the wheel (cue another jolt and traffic dodge). I now know everything about his four children, their occupations, favourite food and holiday plans. I know he was in a band in his twenties and he worshipped Genesis.

And yet, later on in the journey, he would start repeating conversation topics, questions and jokes we had already covered. It was quite subtle at first and mostly I laughed it off as I did with most of my awkward French comprehension. But it made me a little sad, that of course things weren’t all right with him still, and I was ashamed that I couldn’t translate my sympathy and understanding across to him.

Throughout the journey, awkward silences and mumbling vocabulary failures were dissolved in an eclectic soundtrack of Brian Eno, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Corrs, B52s, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and a further mix of obscure seventies prog rock bands that I shamefully did not know the name of. And yet we were rather surprised when we both started humming the words to random tunes like Angélique Kidjo’s Batonga on the radio. Of all the unusual favourite artists to have in common, I wasn’t expecting that. It was moments like this that aided our gradual progression into breaking through the language barrier.

That god damn language barrier. But it’s what I have loved most (despite my complaints) about my time in France and everywhere else. A six hour conversation, fuelled by patience, laughs and a little Google Translate. After an exhausting month at the school, practising every day, it took this final leg of the trip to feel as if I had really made that breakthrough.

Like most long journeys I’m always a little disenchanted when I reach my destination – in this case, it was Porte d’Orléans with a roar and screech of brakes. And later that evening, with my first long haul Blablacar complete, I sat down on my hostel bed, admittedly with some relief. What a cool guy.

This is for you Jean:

For those who haven’t come across it, Blablacar is a great way to get around by ridesharing, a less daring route than hitchhiking. It’s very common and safe, particularly in rural France, and you’re very likely to meet some interesting characters.


Lost in Translation

So how many people can say they have confidently walked into a french hairdresser for a trim one day, thinking they’ve got the language down, and walk out two hours later with CORNROWS. Sort it out France.


The School on the Hill #2

Total language immersion is extremely difficult (oh really? no shit). Even one successful conversation in the day fills me with encouragement, but it’s exhausting. I haven’t felt like this since my Erasmus days in Italy, but even then I could actually speak the language. Here it’s a headache to churn out one sentence, a good headache though. Because it’s more than asking for a pain au chocolat or a glass of wine sitting outside the cafe in Bordeaux. You’re speaking with people who know less of your language than you of theirs, and if you don’t make that effort, then you’ve lost the game. Why did you bother coming all this way? What help are you to them right now? Sat in a busy class with rowdy groups of kids who refuse to speak a word of English or finish their exercise, you realise that there’s little option but to stammer out those little conversational phrases you know, screw the hesitance, screw the mashed up tenses. Because one thing I’ve started to realise is that their stubbornness isn’t misbehaviour, it’s the same issues that I’m encountering, it’s their lack of confidence. And once you realise that, things get a lot easier.

If there’s any way to rigorously learn a language: go practice with kids, they are very unforgiving.

What am I reading? Still on Hunting and Gathering
What am I listening to? Painful French language podcasts
What did I eat? More leftover profiteroles and éclairs, oh it’s a hard life

The School on the Hill

By far one of the most challenging experiences to date, I have found myself back within the deep nowhere of France, upon the tallest hill known to man, teaching English. Let’s see how this goes.

The school in Tulle

There’s civilisation out there somewhere

The school I am working in is remarkably different to what we are used to in the UK. It’s an apprentice school for those wishing to become pastry chefs, confectioners, chocolatiers, bakers, butchers, hairdressers and carpenters. A considerable number of students are my age, I even encountered several students in their thirties with families, those who had previously pursued other careers and decided on a change. Often students came from unsettling backgrounds, had done badly in their previous education and came here for a second chance. Here subjects are taught with patience and small doses of discipline. And the aspect that I find most interesting is that students divide their time between paid work and study. Two weeks at their placement, the third at school, and so on. This means that every week I am with a fresh set of faces. I must say, I think we could learn a lot in the UK from this system. Granted, motivation levels in English class are often low, as is normal in many schools, but when I was present in the practical classes, the focus and commitment from the students was remarkable. I was particularly surprised by how ambitious they are:

“What do you want to do in future?” 
“Within ten years I will be the best chocolate maker in France”
“I will be living in America, running my own restaurant.”

Why not ey. If you ask me right now what I want in future, it will go something along the lines of “Erm.. In a position where I can realistically afford a comfy flat in zone 2 and an entire wardrobe from Zara.” But that’s just me and my cotton wool head.

Let’s not forget the teachers, they are remarkable. The only English teacher is a saint, and what’s more, she really, really cares. Every day is a battle to motivate these kids to realise how important their grasp of English needs to be, that (unfortunately) they are unlikely to progress further in their ambitions in the world without it. I shuffle my feet uncomfortably at the side of the class during these moments, with my lazy French conversation skills and memories of GCSEs springing to mind. We don’t really make the effort back home do we?

Oh what a lazy, lazy nation we are.

What am I reading? Hunting and Gathering – Anna Gavalda
What am I listening to? Alvays – Archie, Marry Me
What did I eat? Duck confit, served most days in the cafeteria 😉


Canals of Amsterdam

I found Amsterdam to be a stunning city. Cute and welcoming, every street corner is lined with tempting eateries and picturesque seating over the canals. Despite being only several hundred kilometres in size, it is very easy to lose yourself as every damn street looks the same. This is no problem at all in the afternoon, however at night, when the brawling, intoxicated British tourists come out to play and everyone is a little worse for wear; it’s often tremendously difficult to stagger your way back to your lodgings. However this is where I digress. Without sounding too much like a teacher (or a hypocrite), I must say I was astounded at the way us Brits treat the place. Every night of the week residents suffer the rowdy, brawling, swaying, stumbling intrusion of every stereotype we have to offer. Mankini-clad stag nights and feather boa donned hen parties brimming across the pavements, leaving piss and vomit in their wake. If it weren’t for the beautiful surroundings, I’d have thought we were in Magaluf.

I suppose by throwing in legalised drugs and prostitution into a holiday it’s bound to have a morphing affect on our behaviour. Politicians love to use Amsterdam as a prime example of why certain drugs cannot be legalised in the UK. In some ways, ok, they have a point. But it’s only a small number of our population that represent us in this way. When a haven is created for such behaviour to be tolerated, of course we will go crazy for it. But put it on our doorstep and I am sure the novelty will wear off soon enough.

So after hearing that London Mayor Boris Johnson recently dubbed Amsterdam as ‘sleazy’, I could only cringe more at the embarrassment my home nation is causing. It made me laugh to hear that Amsterdam’s Mayor, Eberhard Van der Laan, responded with an open invitation to visit the city and witness exactly how the British tourists behave in comparison to local residents. Then Boris can form his opinion. It’s us who bring the sleaze not them Boris! My impression of Amsterdam was a city of tolerance and respect for its inhabitants. Some may call this loose morale and out of control, but I believe we could learn a thing or two from their culture.

What was my favourite place? Stedelijk Museum – check out Marlene Dumas
Where did I eat? Brix – a restaurant near the canal, tucked away from the tourists. I was lucky to be taken here by some old Erasmus friends who grew up in the city.
What did I listen to? MØ – I Don’t Wanna Dance
What was I reading? Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

Stedelijk and dinner at Brix

Playing with lego at the Stedelijk and a cosy dinner at Brix




If you are ever passing through Bordeaux on a budget, make sure to stay at the Auberge de Jeunesse. There’s a good chance you may run into a lovely and well-spoken old Englishman named Dylan, the epitome of a nomad. He will regale you with stories of his solitary wanderings, his journeys in eastern europe living out his car; the time he spent with a group of rastafarians in Jamaica; jumping onto a stage in a jazz club in Brooklyn and playing with the band; and most importantly the generosity encountered every step of the way. Then he will introduce you to every guest in the hostel, tell you you’re hungry, then force feed you his jacket potato. Just go with it.

Thank you for the stories Dylan.

What did I listen to? Blood Orange – It Is What It Is
What did I eat? Aside from Dylan’s unwanted chocolate mousse, I had one of the best Nutella crepes of my life. Had to be done.

The Day Things Clicked

We woke up at five and filled the car with biscuits. Armed with a post-it of scrawled directions, we headed off in the direction of the mountains. As the sun rose it became evident we were on the right track with the Pyrénées laying straight ahead, growing as we advanced. Yet we still became lost, somehow. Any excuse to stop in another tiny town and nose about was welcome. We took more pleasure in the gradual, three hour approach than the arrival of the destination itself.

The long drive to the Pyrenees
The gradual approach to the Pyrenees

After stopping in the deserted ski town of Bagnères-de-Luchon, we began our ascent.

Panorama on approach to Lac d'Oô

Hiking up through the trails towards Lac d’Oô, the name proved to be very appropriate. It really was…ooo.

Lac d'OôPyrenees horse and house

After a quick horse selfie we reluctantly descended back down to ground level. From there we decided to casually drive into Spain and onwards to a supermarket in Bossòst, better known as the equivalent of a booze cruise stop in Calais for us Brits. It took all my willpower not to buy 12 gallons of red wine, olive oil and a kilo of chorizo. All for the cost of about five euro.

It was a perfect weekend. And I have a feeling that out of every destination on this trip, my favourite memory will always come back to this. Probably because of the spontaneity of taking a car and disappearing off into the mountains, it just wouldn’t be as exciting in the UK. Even the petrol stations are more fun.

Edit: three months later and I can confirm it is still my favourite memory.

What were we listening to? Julien Doré feat. Micky Green – Chou Wasabi
What was I reading? Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring
What did we eat? Apple, walnut and cinnamon cake that I cleverly improvised the night before from some foraged outdoor ingredients