Hey there! This is the first of a series I’m doing here on TOAST called Biddies Abroad. After having my own experience living abroad, I’ve become really curious about the lives of other young women who are spending time outside of their home country. So, I decided to ask! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing stories of some majorly amazing women and the challenges, joy, and growth that came with living abroad.
Up first, we have my lifelong friend, Emily Schumacher, who has spent the past year living and working in France as an English Teaching Assistant. We talk about letting go, living in a second language, and how to get a bunch of french teens to care about Social Justice…
Where she lives: The way that Paris works is you have the main city which is surrounded by this giant highway that they literally call the periphery, it’s hilarious, in French it’s Périphérique. Outside of that is what they call the Île-de-France region, which contains Paris and all the suburbs around Paris and that extends outside of the city 2 hours in each direction – it’s never ending! I’m 40 minutes Southeast of Paris so not that close to it. My town is called Athis-Mons because it used to be two cities that they combined. It’s a really old town – a lot of the buildings are built up from the 1500s or even before that. It was a feudal town back in the day and kept being renovated.
Living with a French mom: The woman who owns the house started renting out the rooms because her kids moved out – her daughter just peaced out and moved to Australia. She makes dinner for us and speaks French to me for 3 hours a night. There’s been a few different situations: the room I’m living in was once lived in by an artist who makes costumes for the Disney theme park in Paris, she’s living the dream. And we had another girl who lived with us that our host mom took in because she was sleeping in the airport, her situation was insane.
The real dish on her program: TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France), my program, doesn’t give a shit about you. It’s an offshoot of CIEP because so many people apply to be teachers in France they actually had to start another program, TAPIF. The program doesn’t do anything: they give you a work contract and that’s it. You have to find your own housing and figure out all of your paperwork and only get paid 790 euros a month. For reference, you literally can’t find apartments in Paris for less than 800 and even then maybe your shower isn’t in your apartment, you’d have to share one.
Who she would recommend her program to: I would honestly recommend this program to someone who is a really independent person and organized and who can get their shit done because you have no one behind you telling you when your deadlines are or how to deal with French administration. You kind of just have to figure it out yourself, which is insane. But because I have this really Type A personality, it’s helped me on that front.
How to have your best experience: I get it, it’s really enticing to move somewhere and live in another country but you really have to have a solid path of what you’re going to do and a solid way of paying for it. I think a lot of people are enticed with the idea that they’re going to show up to a country and make it work – that can happen, but I feel like it’s really rare. There’s no way you’re going to have a good experience because you’re going to spend all of your time being stressed about not being able to live.
But don’t plan too much: The biggest thing I’ve learned from this experience is to let things go because 90% of the time they’ll work themselves out. There’s only a certain level of planning you can do: once you have your job, once you have your housing figured out, that’s all you can do. You can spend hours a day saying I’m going to do this and I’m going to get this done at this time, but it’s probably not going to work out the way you think it will. There’s just no way you can plan how you’re going to meet people and who you’re going to connect with.
On living in a second language: I found that I have a lot of trouble putting myself out there because I’m speaking another language. I’m so insecure – I’ve always been a good student and academically oriented and all of a sudden I speak like a toddler… I just don’t know grammar rules or I use things incorrectly. The French people are not the most forgiving. I’m really lucky because the French friends I have are actually really forgiving about my French not being perfect, but when I’m talking to new people I feel really insecure about it. It’s been a constant struggle to feel comfortable.
When she started asking for help: I really didn’t actively do it until about January [about 3 months in]. I’ve been so used to automatically knowing what to say and always knowing what to do so it’s been really humbling asking “did I say this right?” I think as an adult you’re so used to knowing what’s right – it takes a removal of your ego to actually ask people if this is wrong and to know you’re not always going to be right. You can’t plan every single word you’re going to say in a foreign language. You have to just try. You have to revert back to being vulnerable. I’ve had to take a step back. I can’t control everything, I’m not perfect. There are some things I’m not going to be good at, but I have to keep trying.
Her embarrassing language moment: I got here a week before my program started so I went to talk to the people at my school. Within minutes of arriving at my collège, which is the middle school, I’m being walked around by one of the teachers and I meet the principal. With all the teachers, I use tu [the informal you] obviously, but with the Principal you’re supposed to used vous [the formal you]. So, the teacher introduces me to this Principal and I’m automatically intimidated by her – I’m like shit this is my boss, don’t fuck this up! And off the bat I immediately start using tu with her… I couldn’t think and was just like fuck! So that was bad…
Her proudest language moment: I was talking with a French teacher and he was telling me that I honestly speak as well or better than some of his Terminale students, which is the last year of high school. That means I could pass the Bac, which is the most difficult test that exists in the world… That was a very, very good moment. The French teachers are hard as shit.
On the school she teaches at: Because I’m in the suburbs and not in the city, it’s the opposite of America: all the rich people are in the city and the young people can afford to live here in the suburbs. This is the lower income area so there are a lot of discipline problems. A lot of the parents in the area have to work a lot so they don’t spend a lot of time disciplining their kids – most of the parents have 2 or 3 jobs. The kids are then in charge of the other child care because a lot of my kids have 3 or 4 siblings. No one is really encouraging them to do their homework and focus on school, so I have very few kids that seem like they’re really interested in English or even good at it because they don’t have the time to devote to it. Also, a lot of the teachers that are at the schools don’t really want to be there, but they have to be. When you’re a teacher in France, you basically work for a certain amount of time and accumulate points and then when you get a certain amount of points you can move academies and move to a place you want to work. I don’t like it; a lot of the teachers don’t want to be there.
How she gets her students fired up: I feel like when we were growing up, school always talked about racism as a thing of the past. Even before Black Lives Matter, I really didn’t know how bad it was with Black people and the police. There are still so many problems and it’s really important to talk about with the students. We can’t rest on this idea that we’ve solved all of our problems. With my high school classes, all the teachers themselves will focus on social justice issues – one of my teachers was doing a lesson on street art so we got to talk about street art. I can actually talk to them about the Women’s March; I designed a lesson plan about Climate Change. One of my teachers was talking about how they wanted to cover segregation and the 1960s and I felt like it was incomplete to talk about Martin Luther King without talking about current events. And of course, not everyone is interested but there have been some lessons where I’ve gotten almost the entire class really invested in it.
Why it’s important to talk about race with her kids: French people get on Americans for being racist all the time and yet they will never have a Black person or a Muslim person running for office; that would be unheard of. Even the kids in my class, the White kids can be very racist against the Black kids. Everyone has blind spots. All the kids hear a lot about the racism that goes on in America, but a Black man was assaulted by a police officer in the North of Paris and they didn’t really know about it. This is happening in your country, don’t think it’s just outside of the country. I would say a lot of my classes are like 50% White – I have a lot of Muslim students, a lot of Tunisian students, Moroccan students, all the North African countries because that’s where they speak French so a lot of their parents have immigrated here. I have very, very diverse classrooms and I love it. It’s cool talking about Black Lives Matter and having my students that are Black, and some of the White kids too, being very interested in it, saying “We need a movement like this in France”.
On meeting new friends: I got really lucky – pretty much all the teachers at my school are actually 25 and under. Oh my god, it’s so great. I’ve basically made all of my friends from having other teachers my age. We’ll go out on weekends and have parties for everyone in the school. And a lot of my friends are also Americans that I met through the program, which is another thing that let me meet people.
Why it’s important to stay open: Honestly, I think it’s really easy when you’re in a new place to choose to isolate yourself. In December, I was in a bad place because I was so sick of teaching and I was really homesick. I knew I wasn’t going to see my parents for Christmas which was a tough thing for me to deal with. I didn’t really talk to people and didn’t put myself out there as much as I should have and I ended up getting really depressed because I was cutting myself off. I think it’s really important to keep putting yourself out there because even if you’re not in a good place, keeping yourself from people is not going to help. For me, it felt like I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I was sad, but the more that I talked to people the less sad I felt.
How dating’s difference: The way guys flirt in France is by coming up to you and saying “you’re really hot.” Not asking me about myself, not talking, just “we should fuck”. At least find out my name! I think French guys think women are walking vaginas… And with the language difference, I haven’t really gone out with guys or flirted with guys because there’s already a power disadvantage. I’m much more a verbal person and it’s been a really interesting adjustment; I’ve become much more okay with just being friends with people. Also, I low-key get cat called all the time here, even in my small ass town!
France vs. Australia (her college study abroad program): Being a teacher in a school compared to going abroad are very disparate. This job is so crazy, there’s no way I was going to have as much fun as I had in Australia. I think I worked literally 2 hours a week when I was in Australia… It was insane. All of my classes were graded on a midterm and a final grade, so like everything in between was partying. I had so much more free time. Also, Australians are just very different people. They’re so open and friendly. Even my French friends, they have this distance. I’m loud, even when I speak French I’m loud, and a lot of French people don’t respond to that. I’m so open – I said like “Oh, I have to go pee” and my French friend was so taken aback that I said that to her! That’s just what we say in America!
What she loves about France: I love living in Europe, I love the train systems, I love how easy it is to get around, to experience new cultures, it’s amazing. The culture and the amazing food and just the way the country looks. I don’t know, it’s just wonderful.
What she misses about home: My shower doesn’t have a mounted shower head so I have to take my showers like this [curls up into a ball]. I love living in Europe, but I cannot with it! Also none of the mattresses in France are comfortable, like every mattress is a sofa mattress. It’s like they don’t believe in padding – the mattresses aren’t thick enough!
Where she wants to go next: Not home!
Since this interview, Emily has accepted a spot going to grad school! She’ll be attending University of Northern Colorado to study conservation genetics and continuing to be a badass. Thanks so much, Emily – you’re awesome!