Moissac (France) - August
The main aim of my trip, as with all my European travels during my time at University, was to improve my language speaking skills. To this end, my host, Dominique, had found me a job. So the Monday morning, my first full day in Moissac, she drove me to my place of work. I had envisaged something on the cushy side, helping in a library perhaps, a job in which I could practice talking French with colleagues and customers. Therefore, when we drove up to an industrial estate and parked by an enormous building, my heart sank. It turned out I was to work in a factory packing plums.
Newspaper delivery girl
Don’t get me wrong, I am no stranger to hard work. When I was fourteen I had a weekly newspaper round in the UK. For those who have never tried it, delivering papers door to door takes a surprisingly long time. It took me six hours to deliver three hundred and fifty papers. And for this I received the princely sum of six pounds. For every additional leaflet I delivered I received an extra one pound fifty. Happy days. Letterboxes became my worst enemy. My fingers took many a battering from lethal letterboxes just lying in wait for their next unsuspecting victim. By the end of my round, my hands would be covered in black print and several small cuts. Dogs became something to fear. A house which always had an Alsatian lying in wait in the front garden never received a newspaper from me. At another house, a savage dog would hurl itself at the door and start to shred the paper (and my fingers if I wasn’t careful) as soon as I began to push it through the letterbox. I lasted a year until I decided it was time to move further up the professional ladder.
I started working every Saturday in a small food shop in my local town. Most of my time was spent on the delicatessen counter, serving fresh meats, cheeses and pies. I worked from nine in the morning till half past six in the evening with only half an hour break for lunch. When the shop closed at half past five, I would go and sit on the toilet just to give my legs a rest. For the following hour, I would clean the deli and sweep and mop the whole of the shop floor. At £1.80 an hour, it paid better than my newspaper round but it was still a measly amount even for 1997/8.
So, when Dominique parked by a factory in Moissac, it was not the thought of manual labour that bothered me. What did concern me was how much French I was going to get to speak against the backdrop of whirring noisy machinery. I mean, that was the whole reason I was putting myself through this in the first place! My host left me with the boss, a tallish middle-aged slim woman with short brown hair and a no-nonense look about her. We sat down in her office and she pulled out a form.
“Name?” she enquired briskly.
“Clare”, I replied.
“That’s your name?” she asked harshly.
“Yes,” I replied slightly confused.
She wrote it on the form.
She wrote it on the form.
“Forename?” she then asked.
Ah. I had completely forgotten that in France, when filling in forms, and on envelopes for example, surname usually comes first. In my defence, surname in French is normally “nom de famille” but she had used only the abbreviated term of “nom”. I explained my mistake.
“I hope you’re going to understand what work you have to do here!” she barked.
I had clearly not got off to the best of starts. We finished the form with a few more hiccups – I didn’t know the full address of where I was staying, I did not have a French social security number and I did not have a French bank account. It was clear to see the boss was thinking I was more trouble than I was worth. Still, she led me through vast room after room until we came to the one I was to work in...