Just a note to say hello...

Hello, and thankyou for reading my blog! (even if you are just here for a passing visit/because you got lost/looking for something else/because I have harassed you into taking a look!) This blog really only exists because I love to write, and talking/writing is how I process and make sense of things…I have been writing stuff for years even though nobody has ever really read it, but I have set this blog up because 1) I have become slightly addicted to reading other peoples' blogs and wanted my own, and 2) because they have helped me see things differently, and I want to do the same! I hope at least some of what I've written does this for you.

From July 2015, this blog is taking a bit of a break from its usual state, and becoming a travel blog (something I never thought I, Katie Watson, would ever write, but there we go) as I embark on my adventures across the Channel, and go and study in Brittany, France as part of my degree. I hope it helps any of you who are reading it whilst planning your own year abroad, and that the rest of you reading just for the entertainment factor are suitably amused by my attempts to understand the French mode de vie!

Friday, 22 April 2016

Stuff I'll miss about France, and stuff I'm excited to get back to in Britain

This one's pretty self-explanatory: things I'm going to miss, and things I can't wait to get back to! You can tell I'm about to finish my year and head back to the UK due to the sheer number of blog posts coming your way at the moment: I'm trying to squeeze them all in before I leave!

Great Frenchy things:
  • speaking French and seeing my language improve. I genuinely learn something every day, and there's nothing like being in the country to feed your enthusiasm for the language!
  • restaurants. There's this one pizzeria in Rennes that we go to all the time (seriously, they recognise us in there now) which is cheap, friendly and the pizza there is potentially the best I've ever had. Then there's the crêperies: crêpes in the UK just aren't the same as French ones, and the savoury galettes are fairly unique to Brittany
Our final visit to the pizzeria
  • shopping. I've bought quite a few souvenirs from my time in France, but I'm really going to miss a few shops in particular when I'm home...
  1. this cute little shop that sells kitchen things and really French-looking tins
  2. a shop similar to Boots called Yves Rocher which does the best nail varnishes: amazing colours, they last all week and they're only €3
  3. the Breton brand shop à l'aise breizh, which has so many nice clothes among other things
  4. France's answer to HMV/Waterstones called fnac, and the easy access to a wide range of fiction books in French, both original French works and translated ones
My pile of souvenirs
  • bread and cheese, pastries. I don't think I need to explain this one: France is the king of bread, cheese and pâtisserie
  • travelling at weekends. There's such a mindset on YA that if you have a free weekend, you hop on a train or even a plane and go and explore somewhere new. It took me a while to get in to, but now I love that I've seen so many places I probably wouldn't have gone to otherwise, and the freedom of just deciding to go for a weekend in the South of France and being able to do it is amazing!
  • trains. French trains are spacious, efficient, comfortable, and easy-to-use, and because the system is nationalised the trains and ticket system are the same over the whole country, making travelling really easy! The only system I think the French beat us at hands down 
My set-up on the long journey to Metz
  • living in another culture, and feeling really British. My sister laughed at me when she came to stay and we walked past a British shop, and I almost cried seeing Cath Kidston and Pip Studio stuff. For me this year these little glimpses of home have been so exciting and nostalgic because they're so rare, and I love it when French people ask me about the UK or how to say something in English and feeling really British

Great British (see what I did there) things:
  • everyone speaking English. Although I'm so much more confident in French now, there's nothing like the feeling of walking in to anywhere in the UK and knowing you can immediately understand and be understood
  • being at home. Again although I'm more comfortable in France and the French culture than I ever thought I could be in a country that wasn't my own, there really is no place like home. I can't wait to not feel foreign and different, but be back with my own people!
  • friends and family: this is the biggest one. I genuinely could not be more excited to be back with my parents and my sister, and then with my uni friends, and to know I don't have to leave them again in a week. It's going to be the best!!
The last time our whole family was together!
  • people apologising. French people generally don't seem to have much spacial awareness, whereas British people will pretty much always move to let each other past, and if heaven forbid a British person accidentally bumps into another British person they'll both apologise about ten times. Yes it's excessive, but I miss it
  • uni. I've got to say, after this year I'm convinced that university in the UK really is the best in the world, and especially campus unis. In my opinion, the teaching is generally better quality, you're more encouraged to think for yourself and take hold of your own degree, and the experience of moving out of home, living with your friends, everyone being based on campus, and the sheer number of societies and social events just make British student life unlike anything else. If I loved it before, I love it even more now!
  • pubs and Devon cider. I don't think a proper British pub can truly be replicated outside of our grey, tea-obsessed island, with its unique atmosphere and character and good, cheap food. And I miss real Devon cider so much
  • National Trust places and English bookshops. These are two of my favourite weekend activities, and again they just don't exist in France. I can't wait to go back to all my favourite National Trust places (for free I might add, because I'm a member) and spend hours in the tea  shops drinking real tea and eating cake (I've given up ordering tea in France, it's always a disappointment) and peruse the shelves of Waterstones for hours on end. So if you need me in the next few weeks, that's probably where I'll be
Technically not National Trust, but still one of my favourite
places in the whole world: Jane Austen's house

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Let's talk about language

So I figured after eight months of a year abroad specifically designed to improve my fluency in French, I should probably talk about where I feel my language is at now. I think about language a lot of the time, and pretty much every time I speak French I end up analysing what was said, either consciously or unconsciously. Each conversation has the power to make or break my day: coming out of a situation where I understood everything and was able to respond as I wanted to literally makes my whole week, but those bad experiences where my head's not in it and I misunderstand or end up stuttering over my words and it all falls apart are just the worst. It's kind of taken over my life if I'm honest, and it's hard to sum up all the language related trials and tribulations in just one blog post!

Having said that I feel like I've improved so much over this year, just from the sheer amount of French I've spoken, and the lack of any other option most of the time! So here are a few little thoughts and observations I've had recently about living daily life in a second language...

Firstly, it's worth saying that more often than not I come away from any sort of in-depth conversation (as in anything more than ordering in a restaurant or a 2 minute chat with someone) with a distinct sense of frustration at myself for not being better. I know my expectations of myself are too high, and that realistically I'm never going to be as good as native speakers, but I've always put a lot of emphasis on communication (I talk literally all the time: if left to my own devices I will just narrate my thoughts in a sort of stream of consciousness way until someone stops me), and not being able to say what I want to in the way I want to frustrates me like nothing else. Although this is annoying to say the least, if I can relax a bit and accept that I will make mistakes and sometimes have to muddle through it can be a really good thing, as it pushes me to keep talking and contributing, and to always try and clarify what I want to say as best I can. Although I'm never really in a situation where I can't think of a single way to communicate what I want to, I often find myself saying a less than I would in English, or saying it in a less precise way because I can't find the right word or idiom.

But when I step back and look at it, I have to admit that I generally feel very comfortable conversing in French now, as I know I can always understand the majority of what anyone says to me, and often even the little nuances too. French doesn't feel as much like a 'foreign' language to me any more, in the same way that France doesn't feel like a 'foreign' country, and most of the time when I'm out and about interacting with people I'm thinking in the language, and not translating in my head: the words have an inherent meaning now, and sometimes I even find myself translating phrases I hear a lot in French back in to English! I can't explain why, but some phrases pop in to my head in French before they do in English even when I'm thinking in English, completely randomly, and make my English sound a bit disjointed when I find myself translating literally from French!

I know this may make it sound like I'm totally bilingual and never have any problems speaking French, but that really couldn't be further from the truth, especially in intense, native-level conversations. There is nothing more demoralising than seeing that confused look on someone's face because you've said something completely wrong, or someone in a restaurant replying to you in English, or contributing to a conversation with a joke that doesn't quite work or a sentence that's too literal or doesn't translate properly and totally ruining the flow. I'm a real storyteller (nothing gives me more joy than telling a really great story and everyone laughing...genuinely, it's a problem) and sarcasm and humour are a huge part of who I am, so not being able to communicate these things properly really makes me feel like part of my identity is being, quite literally, lost in translation.

But occasionally, I'll have a conversation where I don't stutter, where I answer people's questions appropriately and without hesitation, or I tell a story or a joke and people actually laugh, and I walk away feeling so much more like myself. And also kind of like a superhero. These little breakthroughs, like when I led kids at church and was able to respond to their questions quickly and normally, or when I re-listened to a song and understood all the words when before I had really struggled, or in my church small group when people treat me the same way as everyone else (as in they don't slow down particularly or treat my responses differently to anyone else's), make all the struggles worthwhile. And remind me not to be so hard on myself!

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The end of the rainbow

Back in September I wrote about one of my first mornings at church here in France and what a breakthrough it was, which you can read here (it was called 'the rainbow after the rain', hence the title of this post) and so today, 8 months on, I thought I'd write a quick post about my last Sunday morning. I still have a couple of travelly blogs and some longer end of year posts to go up, so this will be a fairly short one.

As soon as I walked in I was struck by how far I'd come since that first visit, as people came and said hi and I went and sat by two women I have come to know well from life group and the weekend away and had a really lovely chat with them. Half way through the service the meeting leader invited people to come and pray for me, and it was such a big thing for me to hear the voices of people who have been so welcoming and such an important part of my YA thanking God for me, and praying for my future. It really made me appreciate how supportive they have been this year! Once the service was over, lots of people came over to say goodbye and wish me luck in the future which was so lovely, and again reminded me how close a family this church is and how freely they have welcomed me in to it! One of the children came up and grabbed my hand and told me to close my eyes because they had a surprise for me, and she led me out to their classroom and they gave me some drawings they had done and excitedly showed me their pictures and where they had written my name and theirs toute seule or moi-même (all by themselves!), and then they prayed for me. It was the cutest thing!! Then more goodbyes and chats with people which were so encouraging: it was so bizarre talking about getting to the end of the year and looking back at the beginning. It feels both like forever and no time at all!

Then a family from my life group had invited me and a few others over for lunch to mark me leaving: we chatted and ate together, laughing at their two little girls and talking about my year and how I had found it, what I would miss and what I was looking forward to going back to. It was so nice to talk about it all in retrospect knowing I had done it, and to talk about the cultural differences feeling like I actually knew what I was talking about! After lunch we continued to talk about the future and church and family and normal life things, and as per usual they kept asking me lots of questions to include me which gave me the confidence to really contribute to the conversation! It always takes me a few minutes to get in to chatting readily and stop caring that I make mistakes or that I will inevitably be slower than them, but they're so interested and encouraging that by the end I found myself happily chatting away and volunteering stories and comments. It just felt like such a chilled, normal conversation and made me realise how much my confidence has grown this year: I think in many ways that's been even more important than the actual improvement in my language level!

Church has been a total lifeline for me this year, both spiritually and in terms of giving me a real sense of community and belonging. They're the people who make a real effort to know what's going on in my life and have in turn included me in theirs, and their support and prayers have been invaluable. And of course, it's been so good for my French too. Even though I often feel frustrated that I can't express myself better or that I'm not completely fluent, I know that pushing myself by spending time with natives has increased my fluency so much, and I think I'll see the difference much more next year when I go back to Exeter. I'm sure I'll come back to Rennes to visit everyone at some point in the future, especially as a number of people offered me their homes to stay in! I really have found a new church family this year in them, and I'm convinced that this was one of the biggest reasons God brought me to the city of Rennes specifically as opposed to somewhere else. My mum always jokes that she thinks going to church should be a compulsory part of YA, and I have to say, after this morning, I'm inclined to agree.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Spring Séjour 2: Pâques en Provence

Welcome to a late and probably fairly summarised blog post on my Easter weekend, which I spent in the South of France (how exotic and cultured does that sound?!). As we only got one day of holiday for Easter, we were left with two choices:
  • stay in Rennes and lament the lack of excessive amounts of chocolate and our families (but mostly the chocolate)
  • make the most of our 4 day weekend to do some travelling and actually use our sunglasses
As you can probably tell from the title, we went for the second one (imagine how boring this blog would be if we'd gone for the first one...'so we stayed in Rennes and cried into our Lindt bunnies. The end.'). This post will be a lot less detailed than some of my others because we were there for 4 days, and if I wrote down absolutely everything you'd still be reading in 2020. So, on with the anecdotes and photos!

As our flight on Friday morning from Nantes was at some unearthly hour we got the train there on Thursday evening. We had pizza and stayed in a fairly basic hotel with the worst wifi ever, but it was cheap and even included an interesting bottle of shampoo/conditioner/shower gel in one. The only exciting thing that happened on our outward journey occurred when we were chatting to the taxi driver on the way to the airport: he was asking us what we were doing here/where we were from, and HE ASKED IF WE WERE FRENCH. Life. Made.

We arrived in Marseille exhausted and hungry, so collapsed in a Colombus café (best muffins in France, and they even do chai lattes) next to the window looking out over the old port.

Thankyou for saving us from exhaustion Colombus

Le Vieux Port

As a way to both see the city yet remain sitting down for as much as possible, we got the tourist train (or the 'wally trolley' as the cynical Ellie called it) up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, a church on top of a  hill with amazing views over the city. It seemed very appropriate that we were there on Good Friday!

View of Notre-Dame from the city

View of the city from Notre-Dame (see what I did there)

The church up close

Inside the main building

The rest of the day consisted of some of the best fish I've ever had for lunch, probably caught and bought by the restaurant from the fishermen that morning, then going back to our hotel and sleeping, going to Carrefour to stock up our fridge and having pasta whilst watching Netflix. Our hotel room was amazing: really not too expensive and we had a fridge and a sink and a hob to store food and cook some basic dinners, which saved us loads of money in the end!

Eating fresh seafood right by the port...we could smell the sea!

Domestic goddesses

Saturday was the day we had set aside to visit Aix-en-Provence: Ellie had been there before on an exchange and said it was beautiful, and she has a housemate studying there so we even had a tour guide to show us round! The weather was absolutely beautiful, and I totally fell in love with Aix. It's such a gorgeous, very typically Southern town: lots of beautiful buildings, winding streets and open squares, lovely shops and nice restaurants. And of course the glorious sunshine, that helped a lot too. We spent the day wandering the streets and looking round all the shops, having lunch and ice-cream, going to a museum and sitting in the park.

Fontaine de la Rotonde

A typical street in Aix

A band creating that French ambiance

The Saturday morning Marché des Fleurs

Cafés on the high street

Parc Jourdan

OH, and I found an English bookshop with a 'blind date with a book' corner, a Jane Austen shelf, and a teashop...it was like air to a drowning sailor, seriously. I was beyond excited.

I spent ages trying to guess what books these were

I would happily have spent all day here

Day 3 was Easter Sunday, and after a fairly lazy morning we headed out into Marseille to hit the tourist spots we had yet to see. Marseille itself is - in my opinion - pretty grim as a city: the tourist bits like the port are lovely, but there aren't huge numbers of places like that and the other bits are all fairly rough. Having said that, we had a really nice afternoon looking round the old fort which now houses the MuCEM museum, along with an edgy new building with great views over the sea. We queued for ages to see pretty much the only open exhibit only to discover the queues was still miles long, so we gave up.

The port side of the museum

In the courtyard

Views out to the sea on the other side

The edgy building

Finally, we went to La Vieille Charité (a domed chapel surrounded by Roman-looking galleries)...

The inside of the dome

This must be in a film somewhere, surely

...and the Marseille version of the Arc de Triomphe, which was a lot less impressive than its Parisian counterpart.

Stupid roadworks ruining my aesthetic

The next day we just packed up our hotel room and spent a couple of hours chilling in the port before our flight, and then spent the next 8 hours or so travelling by metro, bus, plane, shuttle bus, train and finally another metro before arriving back in Rennes.

Final photo opportunity

And that was our weekend! Overall although I think going to Marseille for a day or so to go round the port and the tourist areas is a good idea, I wasn't really that impressed by the rest of the city. Aix-en-Provence on the other hand is now one of my favourite places in France and would be a perfect holiday destination, especially as it's not far from other towns like Toulon, Montpellier, Cannes and Nice, and just generally so pretty and French. Would recommend.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Spring Séjour 1: blustery Dinard and beautiful Versailles (or an injured seagull and #housegoals)

Sorry this post is so late...going through all my Versailles photos took me ages!


The latest from my travels, and the start of a new series (because it just sounds so much more professional and cool if it's a series) which Ellie and I have decided to call our 'Spring Séjour'. We have lots of exciting trips planned for our last few weeks in France (can't quite believe I'm saying that!!) and of course I feel myself compelled to blog about them. First up, a trip to the north Brittany coast. We intended to go to Dinan and Dinard in one day as they're not far from each other...

I'm such a helpful blog writer

...but unfortunately the French travel system was once again against us. Not to bore you too much with our issues, but we were meant to change trains which I didn't realise so we accidentally ended up in Saint Malo instead of Dinan. After much deliberation and asking around, we discovered there was a bus about to leave for Dinard...which we just missed, and had to wait another hour.

Having finally discovered where we're going

It was totally worth it though as Dinard was absolutely beautiful: it was a fairly cold day and the wind from the sea was pretty biting so the layers were definitely necessary, but it was so sunny and the sea was so blue! The fact that it was cold and windy reminded me of the beaches in Yorkshire where my Dad's family live, and we had lunch in a little café that was just the right amount of seaside tourism and cosiness, just like in Yorkshire. We also made friends with a seagull with an injured leg...who still flew away from us, despite his ailment.

At least it LOOKS like it was 30ºC

Me and our new friend

Nice, cute, inexpensive café for lunch...perfect

There were loads of beautiful views and harbours and castles to explore, and it felt so Breton! There was lots to look round - we had to bypass a castle-type building and an AQUARIUM - and we could have spent hours just wandering along by the sea, although I'm very glad it wasn't raining! It was just a really lovely town, and very stereotypically Breton.

Castle-type place

Me attempting to be arty in my photo-taking

Dinard town centre

Having wandered round the town for a bit - which was equally quaint - and visited a bookshop (of course), we went back to the bus stop as we still wanted to get to Dinan and neither of us could actually feel our faces. This is when we realised the bus to Dinan didn't run at weekends (don't ask me why, I don't know) so we would have to go back to Saint Malo and get the bus from there. Patting ourselves on the back for using our initiative and not letting the crazy French travel timetables get in our way, we happily set off back to St Malo, only to discover that the bus to Dinan from St Malo - which we knew ran on a Saturday - didn't run between 1:30 and 5:30pm, at which point it would be way too late to look round, and meant we had left Dinard early for no reason. And to add insult to injury, we still had to wait over an hour for our train back to Rennes, and buy another return ticket because we couldn't use our Dinan return from earlier and couldn't find an option to just buy a single journey. So we have yet to see Dinan! Barton and Watson...making mistakes so you don't have to (©Eleanor Barton).


Now we come to potentially our most anticipated trip of all...we FINALLY made it to the Palace of Versailles!! We got the train there and the bus back to allow us plenty of time there but also cut costs, so after a very early start we made it to the château just before 10:30am. We both thought it would be kind of in the middle of nowhere, but in fact it's on the outside of a little town: it was weird to go round the corner and see this massive palace at the end of the road.

Normal road, then BAM, huge 17th Century château

Louis welcoming us to his home

After a slight argument with the admissions man who didn't believe we were European citizens because we hadn't brought our passports (the tourist office told us we could get in for free as we were in Europe for more than 6 months and students in France, but he wasn't having any of it) we came out into the ground floor corridor which had been converted into a sort-of timeline documenting the history of Versailles from when it was just a small hunting lodge in the time of Louis III, through the renovations and expansions of Louis XIV, XV and XVI and Marie Antoinette, the French Revolution and then up to present day.

Listening to our audioguides before they broke

A model of early Versailles before it was expanded

Paintings of the Versailles of old

We then followed the tour round the various rooms of the rest of the palace: I figured the most interesting way to tell you about this would be to just show you a selection of the photos I took, complete with (hopefully) correct captions telling you what room it is, which I have looked up in my trusty souvenir guidebook. The thing that struck me most about Versailles was the sheer size and grandeur of it all, and its beauty. I know it sounds obvious, but it really was absolutely massive and it was as if the old kings had a completely unlimited budget to spend: every tiny detail was incredible, even the things nobody would ever really see were done with no expense spared. Also, unlike a lot of other stately homes which are grand and expensive-looking but kind of dark and depressing, Versailles is light and airy and tastefully decorated: I would actually move in tomorrow and not change anything. Anyway, on with the photos!

A very grand staircase

The chapel

The Mercury Drawing Room

The War Drawing Room

Then we came to the château's pièce de résistance...the Galerie des Glaces, or Hall of Mirrors (although where the French title seems glamorous and sophisticated, I think the English translation makes it sound like a fairground attraction). This is a really long room with chandeliers all along it, and then windows along one side and mirrors on the other, making it seem really light and spacious. It was stunning!

Mirror selfie

Please let me decorate my house like this

Then a look round the rest of the main palace, back out into the marble court and out to the Mesdames' apartment, where the some of the daughters of Louis XV lived.

The Queen's apartment...so Cath Kidston

Me in the Marble Court

The Mesdames' apartment

Madame Victoire's apartment

At this point we had FINALLY finished going round the main palace, and headed out to the gardens. The grounds of Versailles are spread over 800 hectares and contain no less than 50 fountains (thanks Wikipedia), so safe to say they're pretty massive. The Grand Canal runs through the middle with different gardens sectioned off around it, all in different styles and with amazing features and fountains in each one. I especially wanted to see the famous Fountain of Apollo which I wrote about in an essay in my first year of uni...it was so nice to finally get to see it in real life!

The grounds as seen from the palace

Bassin d'Apollon

At this stage in the day we were rapidly running out of time, so we headed straight for the trianons and Marie Antoinette's hamlet, which we both really wanted to see. We didn't have time to look in the Grand Trianon, but this is what it looked like from the outside...

Where the royal family spent their summer holidays

The Petit Trianon as it is today was mostly designed by Marie Antoinette, who was given the house by Louis XVI to "escape the formality of court life" (lucky her), and as soon as we walked in I decided this was where I wanted to live out my life. It's still pretty big as houses go, but absolutely tiny compared to the main palace....sort of normal stately home size, and it has all the rooms you would need without them being disgustingly massive. And it was decorated completely to my taste, lots of light and white and gold with accents of colour here and there. I really don't know why they don't just let me have it, they have more than enough to go round without it. Also sorry for the rubbish photo quality, my camera was apparently not a fan of the lighting.

It's literally something out of Jane Austen


See, it's really very moderately sized

The gorgeous Salon de Compagnie

Finally we visited Marie Antoinette's hamlet (I guess so she could see what it was like to be a 'poor person', but to be fair to her it did actually have a working farm and stuff) which was like a model village except not in miniature. It was actually like walking round a fairy tale, or a Disney film set: I had to keep reminding myself I wasn't actually a princess. It was sad.

The farm, which actually had real animals!

I kept expecting to see someone singing from the top of this

See, actual real chickens

So there we have it!! Sorry it's taken so long to upload, but as you can see there are a LOT of photos, and these are just a select few from the thousands that I took. If you're ever in the Ile-de-France region, I would 100% recommend visiting Versailles if you can, it's well worth a visit!