I can’t believe it. I’m sitting in my bedroom, surrounded by the photos and memories that have kept me going, and the freedom hasn’t hit me yet. I no longer have to teach. I don’t have to worry every night before I sleep. My stay far from home is in its last breaths.
Yesterday, teaching-wise, was like the day before that – one when people say words that should make you cry. But you’re so relieved and overjoyed that you can’t. I had an 8am start, but when I arrived, the pupils all turned and stared at me expectantly. Five minutes later, we were joined by another thirty students – a real leaving do! They all signed posters for me, gave me cakes and smiled, and I’d written them a little postcard saying, ‘Thank you for all being so enthusiastic and making my early starts fun!’ We took a few group photos, which the teacher promised to send me, and listened to music together.
The otherworldly sentiment remained when I returned to the flat. Mademoiselle Downstairs (the contemptuous secretary that seemed to dislike us for breathing) was ringing on the door for the apartment inspection – which five weeks ago had seemed like a lifetime away. I actually felt nervous, and prepared for the worst – that she spotted a speck of dust and threw a complete barmy – but she surprised us all.
‘Girls, it’s perfect. Just like this when you leave, please. Have you enjoyed your year here? We’ve enjoyed having you. And of course, I’ll make sure you get your deposit back.’ It was bizarre. I was polite of course, but I wasn’t sure how to respond, considering all three of us have dreaded contact with her throughout our stay.
K and I still had classes to take, so I returned to the collège to examine my troisièmes. They’re a tough bunch, but as it was the end of term, I shared cookies and they departed smiling. I sent some emails in the staffroom and before I knew it, it was time for my last class. To be honest, that afternoon was a blur of sweets, cookies, smiles and excited pre-holiday students, and after the barrage of pictionary with the cinquièmes, I didn’t even realise it was all over. The teacher came into the class and looked at me. ‘So how do you feel? Last one!’ and it honestly took me seconds to realise what he meant. I didn’t know what to say – I felt muddled. So I did the Scottish thing, and made a joke instead.
I also couldn’t feel ‘finished’ because I knew I had another meal to attend with the teachers. At 7pm (after a few celebratory texts from C and my mum) I was driven to the restaurant, where I was stationed between two English teachers and a shrew-like older lady named M. She bared her nicotine-stained teeth in animated laughter with the other diners, yet regarded me with a hostile gaze. It seemed she didn’t know what to make of me.
Bizarrely, we both ordered the same salad. I spent the main course in relative silence, except when addressed by the English teachers. M continued to stare. The dessert menus arrived and I ordered a huge brownie ice cream. I couldn’t resist – my last day, I’d succeeded (or just managed) and it was over. I felt elated, picked up the spoon and relaxed.
After that, I couldn’t tell you what altered between myself and M, or who began nattering first – but I kid you not, we spoke at length for an hour. Her brown gapped mouth became softer, her eyes more enquiring than piercing, and it was probably the sugar in the sundae which gave me the confidence to converse unashamedly in French with her. We traversed a lot of subjects: America, politics, Normandy – and some more personal ones, and I didn’t mind being frank with her. She told me she’s always lived in Normandy, apart from a year au pairing in an English seaside town. I remarked that I was excited to return to Britain and she replied, ‘If you were Scottish, surrounded by that countryside, you wouldn’t want to leave.’ One of the English teachers piped up with some witty remarks about my boyfriend and marriage. M turned her sharp gaze on me. ‘Do you love your partner at home?’ I said yes without thinking. It was all a bit like Cinderella confiding in her evil stepmother. So bizarre, but I felt free and confident, nothing to lose, and encouraged that I’d somehow managed to charm her.
We were still talking animatedly when people began searching for their wallets; there was a hubbub and they’d split the bill to cover my food, which I was embarrassed about. We left the restaurant, all the teachers gathering in the car park, and I did what had to be done: a mini speech, thanking them all for being ‘so welcoming’ and wishing them a good holiday. I’ve used the same phrases so many times this week; it doesn’t matter if I don’t bare my soul. It’s more important giving the audience what they’ve paid for. M even grabbed my arm and gave me her phone number. ‘I’m in town a lot you know. I’ll give you a little call if you fancy a coffee!’ I was finding it hard to believe anything.
I was driven back towards the flat, and the teacher gifted me a CD he had in his car that I’d liked. I closed the door and walked through the gates of the lycée towards my apartment, looking up at the stars. I had tears in my eyes. ‘It’s over, it’s all finally over’, I repeated mentally, and it was surreal. That was that. Seven months of a long journey, coming to an end.
Today, the sun is shining, the sky a pure blue. I’m going to the jardin. This next week is just for me. I’ll video chat, read, write, pack and relax. And I think I deserve it. Finally.